AUGUSTA, Maine — Two Republican lawmakers, a Democratic former House speaker, a union member and business representatives joined in an effort Tuesday to pressure Maine’s U.S. senators, independent Angus King and Republican Susan Collins, to take leadership roles in crafting a bipartisan immigration reform package in Congress.
At a State House news conference, the group asked Collins and King to sign onto the immigration reform principles favored by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a national group chaired by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch and a handful of other business leaders and big-city mayors.
“In Maine, we can agree that we have a broken system, and it’s time for comprehensive reform to be enacted,” said Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, who owns Ricker Hill Orchards and employs seasonal, migrant workers through the federal H-2A visa program. “Having to work with the system, it gets harder and harder every year for us to get our apple crop picked and in on time.”
The outline for immigration reform favored by the Partnership for a New Economy matches the broad principles introduced late last month by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators, who are advocating for a legislative package that would strengthen border security, create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, implement an improved employment verification system so employers can verify the immigration status of new hires, and expand opportunities for legal immigration so businesses can fill critical job openings.
The four Republican and four Democratic senators in the “Gang of Eight” have yet to unveil the specifics of their immigration proposal.
Timberlake and Jean Ginn Marvin, innkeeper at the Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport and a former Republican House member, described their struggles with the federal visa programs they use to hire temporary workers for their businesses. And Joel Pond of Fairchild Semiconductor in South Portland described the difficulties U.S. companies encounter recruiting foreign citizens educated at U.S. colleges.
A lack of immigration reform “is especially problematic when these workers are educated right here in the United States but are forced to take their talents to their home countries,” Pond said. “If our immigration system is not modernized to attract more skilled workers to our workforce, the U.S. economy will lag behind.”
Bipartisan momentum for a national immigration reform package has been picking up since November’s elections, with the formation of the Gang of Eight in the Senate and an emphasis on the issue by President Barack Obama.
Obama largely echoed the Gang of Eight reform principles during his State of the Union address last week. Over the weekend, however, the White House irked some Republicans when USA Today obtained elements of immigration reform legislation being written by the Obama administration as an alternative if the Gang of Eight proposal falls apart.
Glenn Cummings, a Democratic former speaker of the Maine House and now executive director of the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences charter school, said this year’s immigration debate is different from debates in previous years because of its focus on the country’s economic needs, rather than a heavier focus on the needs of immigrants.
“We think the entry point has often been political in the past,” he said Tuesday. “I think by prioritizing what is best for the U.S. economy, the global economy and making the U.S. competitive first, by doing that, we end up bringing both parties together.”
Collins is “looking closely” at the immigration reform principles outlined by the Gang of Eight, and she’s pleased the eight senators are “working toward a bipartisan solution,” Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley wrote in an email.
“Sen. Collins believes that true reform must secure our borders, deter illegal immigration and favor those who have followed our immigration laws,” Kelley wrote. “Reform should also find a fair way for young people brought to the U.S. as children to remain in this country and to allow the best and the brightest educated in the U.S. to stay and build their futures here.”
Collins voted for an immigration reform package in 2006 that passed the Senate but ultimately died. That package focused largely on strengthening border security but also included changes to the H-2A visa program and would have allowed illegal immigrants who have been in the country at least five years to apply for citizenship after paying fines and back taxes.
In an emailed statement, King said he’s “strongly in favor of the bipartisan work already going on around immigration reform.
“This year is the time to do it and I am delighted that a group in Maine is actively involved,” he said. “Immigration has played an important role in the formation and development of our country. At the same time, our current immigration system is broken and dysfunctional.”
Reuters contributed to this report.