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Calls in Maine for Immigration Reform Intensify
04/10/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Thousands of demonstrators rallied in Washington D.C. today to call for immigration reform. That message was echoed on a smaller scale in Maine this morning as immigrants, community leaders and business organizations gathered in downtown Portland to press Congress to take action. Tom Porter reports.

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"Immigration has fueled Maine's economy in the past, and we see it as fueling it for the future," said Ed Cervone (above), president of the Maine Development Foundation, and a representative of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Cervone was one of several dozen people assembled on the steps of the Unitarian Universalist Church to highlight the recent agreement between the AFL-CIO - America's biggest federation of labor unions - and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on a new visa program for guest workers.

The proposal would allow up to 200,000 workers a year into the country to fill jobs in construction, hospitality, and other areas where employers say they have a difficult time hiring Americans.

Cervone says it's a proposal that makes sense, given the demographic challenges facing Maine, including stagnant population growth. He points out that according to census data, an estimated 200,000 Mainers are expected to reach retirement age in the next 10 years.

"So with those people reaching retirement age, and absent anything else happening differently in our growth pattern here, the workforce is going to shrink sigifnicantly within the next decade," Cervone said.

He says by 2020, some esimtates show 20,000 fewer workers in Maine. And by 2025, this number could be nearing 40,000.

IMG_0455Abdi Matan (left, in wheelchair) is a Somali immigrant and small business owner who lives in Lewiston. "The economic needs of the United States will continue to require a migrant labor force," Matan said.

Matan became a U.S. citizen last year, six years after he moved to the U.S. Time and again, he says, an influx of immigrant workers has been seen to breathe new economic life into deprived areas. "I will continue to work with others to make our communities more welcoming and safer for our immigrant brothers and sisters," he said.

"It's a step in the right direction, that the chamber and the AFL are talking. We applaud the people at national for actually putting it together," says Don Berry, president of the Maine branch of the AFL-CIO, which represents about 30,000 workers in the state.

Berry says he supports immigration reform because, at the core, it is a workers' rights issue. "Right now if a worker speaks against anything they'll probably be laid off or worse, because of their immigration status, especially if they're not here legally. So they kind of have to watch what they say," he says.

The U.S. Senate is likely to take up the immigration issue soon. Within the next few days, a bipartisan group of senators - known as the Gang of Eight - is expected to unveil sweeping immigration reform, including a so-called "pathway to citizenship" for America's 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Senate Republicans have been critical of what they see as a closed-door effort. Maine's two senators appear to have different views on the immigration issue. Independent Angus King says the current system is broken and says he's pleased that efforts are underway to fix it.

Republican Susan Collins is more cautious. She says she's studying the issue, but continues to stress that real reform must favor those who have followed U.S. immigration laws.

Photos by Tom Porter.

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