LEWISTON — Maine Gov. Paul LePage is kicking in $10,000 for a program meant to help immigrant families gain English skills.
In a low-key visit to the city Monday, LePage met with some of the families who will benefit from the program being offered by the Portland-based Learning Works.
Learning Works CEO Ethan Strimling reminded those in attendance that English was not LePage's first language either.
"My first language is French," LePage told the group of about 45 men, women and children from Lewiston's immigrant community.
LePage said he simply wanted to meet with some of the families and hear from them in person about the challenges they face in accessing the workforce.
Top for most of them is acquiring adequate English skills, according to Fatuma Hussein, executive director of United Somali Women of Maine. Hussein and other local leaders in the community were on hand to speak to LePage, who listened and exchanged ideas with the group for about 40 minutes.
"The issue is we've got to get them to English proficiency as quickly as possible; that's the key," LePage said after the meeting. "Everything is education and language. And if they have a barrier, we have to curb that."
LePage also invited several of those with whom he had private conversations, some in French, to come to Augusta sometime after the holiday season to further explore what state government can do to help.
"We will sit down and try to identify areas, specific areas we can impact quickly," LePage said. "It's clear to me, both here and in Portland, that the refugees want to work. They've made that pretty clear."
LePage said he was impressed with the quality of the French spoken, but also that many who were in attendance spoke more than one language. It was just acquiring English that was presenting difficulties for some.
LePage's donation, from the governor's contingency fund, brings total funding for the program to $50,000, enough to help about 30 families and between 60 and 80 individuals, Strimling said.
Strimling, a former Democratic state lawmaker, said he was pleased that LePage, a Republican, was willing to check all politics at the door when it came to helping Maine's growing immigrant population.
Learning Works announced the new program in October. It is funded in part by Wal-Mart and the Hudson Foundation and is a partnership between the private nonprofit and the Lewiston Housing Authority.
The program also helps bridge the gap between English learning in public schools for children by making sure the adults in their life are also acquiring English, Strimling said.
Lewiston Mayor Bob Macdonald was also in attendance Monday. He said he and Strimling first started working on an English program for immigrants several months ago. Macdonald said he was pleased LePage came to the city.
Macdonald also said LePage and the state government seemed to be willing to help, but he couldn't say the same thing about the federal government.
"We asked them nine months ago to do something like this to help out," Macdonald said. "We haven't even heard back from them. They've just kind of left the immigrants here, the refugees here, they've left them out in the cold."
Macdonald said he was also glad to hear LePage say he was interested in helping immigrants as they look to develop their own small businesses.
He echoed LePage's comments that immigrants want to work. "But they can't work if they aren't speaking English," Macdonald said. He also said there needs to be a faster way to get immigrants with higher training and education into the professional workforce.
Macdonald also said he was working outside of the state and federal governments to find the resources to help immigrants launch businesses or improve the businesses they have.
"I'm not going to say we want to do it," Macdonald said. "We are going to do it. We all work in partnership; it's all one community."
LePage said he needs more specifics on the types of businesses immigrants want to create, but that he would work within the state agencies in his control to help in that effort as well.