Hundreds rally in Portland in favor of immigration reform.
The event featured representatives from Maine's immigrant communities, and was organized by a number of groups, including the ACLU of Maine, the AFL- CIO Labor Federation and a number of faith-based groups.
Alain Nahimana came to the U.S. from from Burundi three years ago. He's the immigration and racial justice organizer with the Maine People's Alliance, a progressive advocacy group.
"As an immigrant I would like to see immigrants contributing, as they've always been doing, in the greatness of this country," he said.
The Maine rally is one of dozens being held across the nation, involving tens of thousands of people. The rallies carry a special sense of urgency this year, two weeks after a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would bring many of the estimated 11 million living in the U.S. illegally out of the shadows.
Many opponents of this so-called "pathway to citizenship" are against granting what they say amounts to an amnesty for those who came illegally. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, gives credit to her colleagues for tackling what many says is a broken immigration system.
However, Collins does appear to share some of opponents' concerns. In a written statement, she says she still needs to study the detail of the proposal, but believes that any reform must "deter illegal immigration, and favor those who have followed our immigration laws."
Maine's other U.S. senator, independent Angus King, says he thinks the bill makes sense. Talking to MPBN last month, he welcomed the fact that it gives hard-working immigrants the right to earn their citizenship through a series of steps.
"Part of the strength in this country has been the energy and inventiveness that have come from people who came here from all parts of the world seeking a better life and an opportunity for themselves and their families," King said. "And that's what we're talking about here."
Many employers in Maine say immigration reform is long overdue. "We're glad it's finally gotten to this point," says Ed
Flanagan, president of Jasper Wyman and Son, of Milbridge, one of the world's leading growers of wild blueberries.
Flanagan says the company relies on migrant labor to work the harvest. Every year, more than 500 migrant workers - mostly Latin Americans - have to be hired, and every year, he says, trying to verify with the federal authorities that all them have the correct documentation is an extremely arduous process.
A few years ago, Wymans was fined $118,000 by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, because of paperwork errors. "It's ridiculous," Flanagan says. "We all are in agreement - everyone in agriculture - that the system right now is a mess, so we're really very welcoming of finally seeing some bipartisanship here."
Flanagan, and other employers in his position, say comprehensive reform would widen the pool of readily available labor and provide opportunities for those who are here illegally to earn a legitimate wage - people like Ezekiel, who did not wish to give his last name.
"I feel this is my country," he says, in halting English. "I'm immigrant, I'm illegal, but I feel, spiritual, in my heart, United States is my country."
Ezekiel is from El Salvador, where he says he enjoyed a comfortable living as a hospital technician - until 2001. That's when two earthquakes devasted the country, and destroyed the hospital where he worked, along with his economic prospects.
Many of his colleagues were killed in the quake and the memories haunt him to this day. "Terrible, this is really, really terrible," he says. "I have a movie in my brain - many, many doctors, nurses, secretaries, personnel or support, they passed away in this earthquake."
Ezekiel, who's 47 and single, intially had a temporary work visa, but this expired eight years ago. Since then, he explains, he has been living in the shadows, sharing apartments with other immigrants, working a variety of unskilled jobs in restaurants and hotels - washing dishes, preparing food, cleaning.
His dream - and one that he hopes a pathway to citizenship will bring closer to reality - is to be able to go back to school and study electronic engineering. Further down the road, he says he would like to own a business, buy a house, and start a family, none of which are possible at the moment.
"This is my dreaming," he says, with a laugh.
Tomorrow we'll be hearing from another member of Maine's undocumented immigrant population - someone who came here under quite different circumstances.
Photo courtesy of Maine People's Alliance.