Panel: Immigrants crucial to Maine’s economy

Posted Sept. 15, 2011, at 5:55 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 16, 2011, at 9:32 a.m.

LEWISTON, Maine — Hussein Ahmed came to this city 10 years ago, and has worked his way through the American experience, step by step.

The Somali refugee first got his GED, then his associate degree and then his bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern Maine. He has opened his own grocery store and runs an interpreter service. He’s now going for his master’s degree at USM.

“All these changes in my life happened right here in Maine,” said Ahmed. “Now I’m part of the work force, I’m an employer.”

His success took effort on his part, said Ahmed, but also an acceptance of new immigrants on the part of Lewiston and Maine and a system that works with those new Mainers.

“Together, we are all benefiting,” said Ahmed.

That experience, that concept of immigration as a benefit to the economy, was the topic of a panel discussion Thursday at Bates College sponsored by the Maine State Chamber, the city of Lewiston and the Partnership for a New American Economy.

“When we don’t talk about immigration as an economic issue, we leave jobs on the table,” said Jeremy Robbins, a policy advisor in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office, where he helps manage the Partnership. “Immigration reform is a budget neutral way to create a lot of jobs, when there really aren’t a lot of other alternatives.”

Robbins noted the national skills gap between the demands of jobs that are open and the abilities of unemployed Americans to fill them — a topic that has been in the news recently in Maine.

“There is a discrepancy between the jobs that are available and the skills we have, and we absolutely should train more Americans to fill those jobs,” said Robbins. “But until we do that, we leave jobs on the table. When an immigrant takes a job, that doesn’t mean an American can’t get one. Companies grow with the right people.”

Robbins said the American work force has become both too educated and under-educated. Many Americans are over-educated and uninterested in most labor-intensive jobs, many of which are filled by immigrant workers. On the other hand, Americans have fallen behind in education in higher-level science and technology jobs, he said — and those positions can be filled by foreign scientists and engineers, many of whom are educated here and then forced to return home due to immigration policies.

At Thursday’s panel, employers on both ends of the spectrum were represented. Cindy Talbot, vice president of human resources at Portland’s Barber Foods, talked about how company founder Gus Barber’s immigrant parents had been unable to find jobs because they couldn’t speak English. Barber founded the food company and vowed to open his doors to immigrants, said Talbot.

“He started out of kindness, but really, it’s smart business,” said Talbot.

Barber Foods offers classes in English as a second language, and many of the immigrants who come to work at the company are highly skilled professionals who become trainers, supervisors and other leaders in the company, she said.

“They continue their educations through our school systems, they own homes, they purchase cars, they become a member of our community,” said Talbot. “They thrive and we thrive because of that.”

The Jackson Laboratory employs 1,300 people, and 124 of them are foreign nationals that “occupy some of the most challenging and important places in the organization,” said Michael Hyde, vice president for advancement and external relations.

“The Jackson Laboratory, and in fact all of American science and technology, really rests on our ability to attract the best and brightest scientists in all the world,” said Hyde.

Hyde said that the latest national data show that in 2005, about 48 percent of students enrolled in science and engineering doctoral programs are people from abroad. Of those students, 82 percent have temporary visas, and 75 percent would like to stay here and work after getting their doctorate, he said, but current immigration policy makes that difficult.

Fairchild Semiconductor General Counsel Paul Delva, speaking in a pre-recorded video, said his firm relies on high-skilled immigrants in the work force. Fairchild supports green card reform, granting faster access to permanent residency, said Delva.

“We’re beneficiaries of an open society — we are open to immigration, we’re open to outsiders, we’re welcome to new ideas, to people from all over coming here to make their way in the area,” said Delva.

Robbins suggested some short-term reforms that Congress should consider. The first is to offer an entrepreneur’s visa, where foreign businesspeople who have a plan and financing can come to the United States for two years on a temporary visa. That visa would be renewed pending creation of revenue and jobs, he said. Another would be to expedite a green card process for people with advanced degrees.

“We are training people who could help our companies grow, and then we’re sending them home to compete,” said Robbins.

After the panel, Ahmed, the Somali business owner and student, said the discussion rang true with his own experiences. Immigration reform is needed, he agreed. He employs a foreign woman who has been in the country for about seven years and has worked for him for three years. Her permanent residency paperwork is taking a long time, and her temporary visas keep expiring, so she has to renew them and he has to go through the hiring process with her all over again, Ahmed said.

Maine has benefited from an increase in immigration, said Ahmed, and the state is a great place for immigrants.

“Bringing more of these new people to the state will make us better, make Maine the best place to live,” he said.

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