AUGUSTA — A proposal to create an Office of New Mainers aims to attract and educate immigrants who might make Maine home.

Coping with the state’s shrinking workforce and aging population, supporters said, will take a concerted effort to convince immigrants that Maine offers them a good chance for success.

“We want people with the American dream to move here no matter their country of origin is,” said its sponsor, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta.

Among the bill’s provisions is an expansion of an existing New Mainers Welcome Center initiative in Portland to include another center in Lewiston that would work with the city’s adult education program to attract, educate and retain in employment foreign-trained workers residing in Androscoggin County.

“It sounds like a physical structure, but it’s not,” said Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, another backer.

He said the program would help foreign-born workers learn English and the lingo necessary to snag jobs with businesses eager to hire them.

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Katz’s bill seeks $2 million to establish the cabinet-level New Mainers Office that would ensure state leaders pay attention to, what he said may be, the most important issue facing the state.

“We really need to raise the visibility” of the issue, Katz said, and show everyone that Maine takes the need seriously.

The office would develop a plan to educate and train immigrants to move into positions that employers are having an ever harder time finding anyone to fill.

“We need to be smart. We need to be focused. We need to be welcoming,” Katz said, so that Maine’s economy doesn’t suffer because it can’t offer enough trained workers.

The state’s businesses have complained they are having a tough time finding employees. With record low unemployment and more people dying than being born, the long-term demographic trend isn’t exactly rosy for their chances.

But Golden and Katz each said that legal immigrants coming to the state are not just a good way to address the problem, it’s also the path the state has always taken.

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Golden said that in Lewiston, for example, plenty of French-speaking people moved from Canada to work in the city’s mills a century ago, finding success as they mastered English and moved up the economic ladder.

Present-day immigrants are doing the same thing, he said.

Katz’s measure aims to establish grant programs to help provide them with more English-language instruction, vocational training and placement so they can find a good niche in the workforce.

It would help schools and local governments manage immigrant populations and boost adult education for them.

Katz acknowledged that immigration “is kind of a loaded word these days,” but it is nonetheless “absolutely a matter of economic imperative.”

Golden said there are many employers around who are more than willing to work with immigrants to help them get the knack of jobs that need filling, including Bates College and area hospitals.

“We have a workforce shortage,” he said, and “we need everyone, all hands on deck” to address it.

Both Katz and Golden said they hope the Legislature will go along with bill. It builds on the success of the Portland program, they said, so there is good reason to think it will prove beneficial.

The bill faces its first hurdle at a Wednesday public hearing before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.


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