LEWISTON — During a presentation Tuesday of a report on immigrant and refugee services in Lewiston, Claude Rwaganje said the future of Maine’s economy will rely on more immigrants joining the workforce.

Rwaganje of the Portland-based Community Financial Literacy and a few others said Lewiston has a head start over the rest of the state in how to address an overall population decline and workforce shortage. 

“It is an advantage to the city at a time that many cities are seeing a shortage of labor,” said Mutaz Abdelrahim, who was also part of the working group that drafted the report.

“Our kids who graduate from high school and college, they do stay here,” he said of Lewiston.

Following a discussion of the report’s findings during a City Council workshop, councilors said they are hoping their support for a legislative bill can address the report’s main recommendation without incurring additional local costs. 

The bill, co-sponsored by State Rep. Jared Golden of Lewiston, would allocate state funding to establish an office in Lewiston similar to the New Mainers Resource Center in Portland. The office, with one staff coordinator, would help to align city services and supporters argue it would help immigrants join the workforce faster. 

The office would be administered by Lewiston Adult Education, but funded by the state. At the time of Lewiston’s last report, in 2002, a similar coordinator position existed in Lewiston, but after state grant funding ran out, the position was cut. 

According to the 2017 report, the coordinator position would help develop programming “designed to assist foreign-trained workers to fully participate in our local workforce.” 

The report is the culmination of two years of work by the Immigrant and Refugee Integration and Policy Development Working Group, made up of several leaders of the immigrant and refugee community, as well as service providers, city staff and elected officials. 

It was designed to inventory and assess current services, as well as identify improvements that could be made to better help immigrants receive workforce training and language services and join the workforce faster.

During the meeting Tuesday, many said Lewiston has benefited from the presence of new Mainers, who have been “filling a void” in the declining workforce.

Mary Lafontaine, a working group member from the Maine Department of Labor, said it’s clear that Maine has a labor shortage.

“Even if we use everyone who’s available to work, we won’t have enough,” she said referring to demographic projections. “We clearly can’t meet the workforce need without more people coming in.” 

Among councilors, there was support nearly across the board for what the report accomplished. Councilor Michael Marcotte said he wished there was more discussion about the inclusion of private sector businesses in the report.

Lafontaine said at the Maine CareerCenter, which she oversees, the private sector is well represented. She said immigrants join the workforce after direct employer-driven training in trades like construction and manufacturing, and are usually hired immediately. 

Based on the positive feedback from councilors, Mayor Shane Bouchard asked that a resolution of support for the legislation be drafted for the council to vote on next week. 

City Administrator Ed Barrett told the council that it “would be helpful to take a formal opinion” on the proposed legislation. 

Kristen Cloutier, president of the City Council, served as chairwoman of the working group. She told the Sun Journal earlier this week that the report was long overdue, and she told the audience Tuesday that the report probably took the group two years to compile “because it had been so long.”

Bouchard called the report “a great start that gives us some direction,” and that the council has plenty of time to “dig in” to the details of the report. 

Among members of the immigrant community speaking at the workshop was Abdi Abdalla, with Maine Community Integration. He said since coming to America from Somalia, he’s had many jobs, including as a truck driver. But, eventually, he said, he decided to stay put in Lewiston, calling it “a great city and great community.” 

He said with some of the divisive language that occurred during the 2016 presidential election, his five children began asking questions. When Somalia was included in the list of countries on the so-called travel ban, they asked if they’d be forced to go back.

“They said, ‘We’re from Lewiston,'” he said, referring to his children. “We are a community that wants to give back what we get from Lewiston. We’re not going anywhere. This is our place. This project will help a lot of people.”

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The report lays out five recommendations for the City Council to consider moving forward:

1. Support legislation that would allocate state funding to open an office in Lewiston similar to the New Mainers Resource Center in Portland. 

2. Consider membership in Welcoming America, a network of nonprofit organizations and municipal governments interested in making their communities more welcoming to immigrants and refugees. Annual dues are $200.

3. Continue to create better access to safe and affordable housing and support stricter code enforcement efforts, especially as they relate to combating the high childhood lead-poisoning rates in the community.

4. Continue work to attract and create more good-paying, full-time jobs in Lewiston, not just for the members of the immigrant and refugee populations, but for everyone.

5. Request that Lewiston and the City Council consider a more holistic approach to the recruitment of immigrants and refugees for positions on municipal boards and committees.

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