In this election year, immigration policy promises to be a political issue, nationally and here in Maine.
Nationally, disagreement will continue over such issues as how to stem the influx of illegal aliens, what to do about the 11 or 12 million illegal aliens now in the country, and the DREAM bill, which would give undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children a path toward legal status if they attend college or serve in the military. The bill was passed by the House, but it hasn’t been able to overcome Republican filibuster in the Senate. Federal law provides an annual worldwide limit of 675,000 permanent immigrants, plus up to 480,000 family-based entries.
In Maine, one of Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s first acts was to rescind an executive order by former Gov. John Baldacci and allow state officials to ask for immigration papers of those who approach their agencies for help or benefits.
An organization calling itself Mainers for a Sensible Immigration Policy run by Jonette Christian of Holden has called for tougher enforcement of federal immigration laws and hailed the passage by Alabama last year of “an immigration law even tougher than Arizona’s, which requires that employers use E-Verify to determine worker eligibility.” She wrote that 27 states were considering or had already adopted similar requirements. No such legislation has been introduced in Maine.
E-Verify is a voluntary federal program in which an employer may consult a national database of undocumented immigrants. Employers are invited to sign agreements pledging to do so.
In Maine, some business leaders including David Barber of Barber Foods and Adam Lee of Lee Auto Malls, worried about possible state legislation and the message sent by Gov. LePage’s order denying state services to undocumented immigrants. They launched a “Maine Compact,” urging immigration policies that would enhance Maine’s reputation as a welcoming and business-friendly state.
Mr. Barber said by email: “With roughly half of our associate population as immigrants, I obviously see [immigration] as a clear benefit to Maine. The diversity in education and experience is great for our work force.” He said that immigrants often bring a different perspective to a problem and added: “Quite a large number of our supervisory staff is foreign born and they do a wonderful job.”
He advocated “consistent” regulation, saying: “We need immigrants to help fuel our economy and fill jobs that go unfilled. We need immigrants to add to our diverse economy as they have done throughout our history. We also need guidance so that people don’t come here for a handout but a head start to get them settled.”
As for current regulation of illegal immigration, he said: “I get extremely frustrated with bills that call for random ID check. We need protection from people looking for a handout and to live off our generous system of a helping hand. We need to protect the ability for talent to be imported from another land and be helpful in further building our economy. As a country we sometimes go too far or not far enough. In this case, we have ended up with states going too far and the federal government not going far enough.”
As election year progresses, Mainers will do well to accept Mr. Barber’s balanced approach and see immigration not as an unmitigated threat but as a source of needed labor and a means of attracting productive new citizens.