AUGUSTA — A proposal to add a welcome center for immigrants in Lewiston survived a committee session this week that stripped away a companion provision to create an Office of New Mainers to try to attract more newcomers to the state.

With backing from the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, the Legislature will consider whether to support the $2 million plan to bolster the English language skills of immigrants and help businesses bring them into the workforce.

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Hancock, a committee co-chair, said the state’s demographics make it clear that it has to attract newcomers or it won’t have anywhere near the workers Maine needs in coming years.

“We’re on the Titanic and there’s an iceberg out there,” Langley said, and too often officials wind up “polishing the lifeboats” instead of trying not to hit it.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said that he wanted a new Cabinet-level office to spearhead the effort to bring in immigrants but he went along with removing it to secure the panel’s support for the welcome center and related grants program.

The committee’s other co-chair, Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, said the reality is that even if every student from Maine opted to stay in the state as an adult, there would still be a worker shortage.

“We cannot do without people coming from out of state or out of country,” she said. “The more, the merrier. We really need to get more Mainers here.”

Katz’s bill aims to build on what officials describe as the success of a Portland welcome center started a few years ago that works to teach immigrants language skills and the cultural ins-and-outs that would help them prosper in the workplace.

Rep. Phyllis Ginzler, R-Bridgton, said that “overcoming the language barrier” is the key for success.

Katz said that without proficiency in English, it’s hard to get anywhere, pointing out that French-speaking immigrants who filled Maine’s factories a century ago had to overcome the same obstacle before they could flourish.

The proposal calls for the second welcome center to work with Lewiston’s adult education program to attract, educate and retain in employment foreign-trained workers residing in Androscoggin County.

Putting a second welcome center in Lewiston barely squeaked past the panel, however, because some of its members thought that having offices in Portland and Lewiston put too much focus on the southern part of the state.

Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, said the bill seemed “a little narrow in its region” and wondered if there wasn’t a way to make it so that “all of Maine is welcoming” instead of just Androscoggin County.

A Republican from Presque Isle, Rep. Harold Stewart III, said any serious effort has to include northern Maine as well. Given its proximity to Canada, he said that Aroostoock County “would be a very productive location for one of these centers.”

But Katz said that part of the proposal would allow the state to hand out grant money to groups, agencies and businesses anywhere in Maine that are trying to work with immigrants to teach language and business skills. That could include funding other welcome centers elsewhere, he said.

To make it clear, though, he urged the committee to add to the bill to make it clear that additional welcome centers could be sought through grants, a move that appeared to satisfy legislators.

The committee, which backed the revised measure on a 9-1 vote, heard a lot of support for it before taking action.

Dory Waxman, owner of Old Port Wool and Textile Co. and a co-founder of American Rootswear, which is located in Portland and Westbrook, said her company chose six immigrants for a new class to teach them language and workplace skills on new machinery and fabrics in a special classroom it set up.

It proved such a success that 18 workers have now gone through the program, she told the panel, and a new class starts in June for the next batch.

“These are the people who are American Roots today,” she said. “These employees come from places far from our shores. They have come to live a better life in America and have left much behind to come here to begin again.”

“They are some of the best employees we could ever ask for in our state today. They are Maine,” Waxman said.

“We consider ourselves very lucky to have these employees being a part of our growing business and would not be where we are today without them.”

David Barber, former president of Barber Foods, said the company has workers from 53 countries, many of whom arrived with little or no English skills. Training them has proven a big benefit for the firm, he said.

Barber said that many employers could use state assistance in following the same path to recruiting and retaining good workers.

He said that Katz’s proposal “could help employers get started. Having employers involved with helping new arrivals get the basics of communication skills is one path” to engage them in the workforce.

The bill, Barber said, “supports the most basic need for assuring that new arrivals quickly become new Americans, for which understanding the language is a cornerstone.”

Kristen Cloutier, president of Lewiston’s City Council and chair of its Immigrant and Refugee Integration and Policy Development Working Group, told legislators the proposal would “mitigate the effects of our demographic challenges and declining population by providing a capable, willing and able workforce of non-native Mainers to companies looking to locate to or grow in Maine.”

That, she said, would be “a positive outcome for all.”


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