Immigrant legislation sparks passionate response in Lewiston

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LEWISTON — The City Council tabled a vote Tuesday to support a legislative bill that would fund an immigrant resource office in Lewiston, disappointing dozens in the audience who came to back the measure.

The bill would allocate state funding to establish an office in Lewiston similar to the New Mainers Resource Center in Portland, and would fund a staff coordinator position.

Supporters say the new position, administered by Lewiston Adult Education but funded by the state, would align city services and help immigrants join the workforce faster. 

Many on the council have said they support the legislation but said Tuesday they did not feel comfortable voting on the resolution because the version of the bill included in the council memo was not the amended version. 

State Rep. Jared Golden of Lewiston, who spoke in support of the bill, said the amended version is on the state Legislature’s website, and that he expects the bill will “move quickly” during the legislative session over the next month.

The council will take up the vote again Feb. 6. 

While the majority of the councilors said they would support it, and would most likely travel to Augusta to speak in favor, Mayor Shane Bouchard said Tuesday that he “will not support it as written.”

In written comments provided to the Sun Journal, Bouchard said he believes the goals laid out in the proposal can be met with existing services through local nonprofit organizations, without using additional tax dollars.

The bill, LD 1492, would appropriate $75,000 for the coordinator job, most likely for fiscal 2018-19. 

The City Council first took up the issue last week after receiving a report from the Immigrant and Refugee Integration and Policy Development Working Group. Among the chief recommendations in the report is the need to support a centralized location where new Mainers can receive direction to English-language courses, training, and employment opportunities. 

Golden called the bill “common sense” for Lewiston, because it would provide a state-funded position to the city. 

Bouchard said that based on the findings of the recent report, “I do not believe continued measures of attracting new Mainers or any other social services dependant group, citizen or otherwise, are prudent at this time. The report indicates that we do not currently have the infrastructure in place to properly train and care for our current population. To amplify this challenge with this knowledge is ridiculous.” 

Many, including Golden, pointed out Tuesday that the bill is bipartisan. It’s sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, who is Republican. Golden said he intended last year to introduce similar legislation, but didn’t move forward after Katz’s similar proposal included the Lewiston-based position. 

After the council vote of 6-1 to table the vote, those attending the meeting spoke until almost 9 p.m., telling councilors that supporting the legislation should be an easy decision. 

Many, including members of the immigrant community, echoed comments made last week and said language services are the key to getting people into the workforce faster. 

“We can’t complain about limited resources, then limit people’s ability to contribute to those resources,” one resident said. 

Lewiston resident Karen Lane said she was disappointed the council didn’t take action Tuesday. She said Lewiston has an “important place in this state” in setting an example of being welcoming and supportive of new residents.

Fowsia Musse, a community outreach worker for Healthy Androscoggin and a member of the working group, said when she came to Lewiston years ago, “we didn’t have anything in place.” She said legislation like this can benefit those who are already here. 

Many others talked about the importance of supporting language access, including local school officials and English Language Learners teachers. 

Councilor Jim Lysen said many of the opportunities in front of new Mainers are often tied to training and English proficiency.

“This is a good place to start,” he said. 

Among the few dissenting voices was Patti Gagne, chairwoman of the Androscoggin County Republican Committee.

She said there are many services available in Lewiston, such as the Lewiston CareerCenter and nonprofits “not funded by government.”

“I don’t see the need for new services to come to the area when we already have services,” she said. 

Council President Kristen Cloutier said a representative from the Lewiston CareerCenter pointed out last week that there are not enough people to fill the available jobs in Maine, and that immigrants will be needed to fill the workforce shortage.

She called the measure a “basic investment in the future of the community.”

Bouchard said it’s inaccurate to say he doesn’t support new Mainers.

“We can do this in the private sector, without further burdening Maine taxpayers,” he said. “I’m committed to making sure we find a way to do this.” 

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