Portland City Council still working on immigrant assistance

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PORTLAND — Discussion about a new city office to assist immigrants and others who may be disenfranchised will continue at 5 p.m. Tuesday, April 5, at City Hall.

“I think it is, how do we best integrate folks into the community,” Councilor David Brenerman said March 25 about the hearings his Economic Development Committee will host on whether an Office for New American Mainers should be created.

The concept is one Mayor Ethan Strimling advocated while campaigning last fall and in his inaugural address in December. It is also a City Council goal for the year.

But if the goal becomes a reality, both the name and objectives could take on a wider scope.

“The name is just a placeholder; we do not know what it is going to be called,” Brenerman said.

Strimling on Monday said the objective is to hear from the community about what the city is doing well and what it needs to do better to ensure immigrants can integrate into the community socially and economically.

“We see consensus in the need to work with the disenfranchised community,” Strimling said. “The question is, who should the office serve and how best to move it forward.”

Brenerman compared the hearings to ones held by the Council Housing Committee about the need to gather facts before determining policy. Strimling agreed, but said he has a time table in mind.

“We would like to see a path forward during the year,” he said. “My expectation is by the fall.”

The initial hearing on the office included thoughts from Dan Wallace, who directs state and local initiatives at the Partnership for a New American Economy in New York City, and a report from Coastal Enterprises on the need to welcome immigrants because of the state’s overall decreasing population. 

The CEI report estimates about 10,000 people living in Portland in 2013 were immigrants and, since 2000, the immigrant population has increased as the native-born population decreased.

Almost two-thirds of the immigrants arriving since 2010 are of Asian or African origin. In Portland,  immigrants represent more than 80 nationalities, according to the report.

CEI lends and invests money for economic development in Maine and the U.S., and business counselor Tae Chong, a former School Board member, has advocated methods to involve immigrants in economic development.

Alain Nahimana, coordinator of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said full integration has to encompass more than economics.

“The city is the institution that drives the vision and has measurable tools,” Nahimana said March 23. “The city does not have to do everything, but should put together a steering committee and develop the process.”

Immigration integration comes with access to language courses and workforce and skills training, but also with education and civic engagement, Nahimana said, as he called for the city to create goals and tangible measurements of how they are reached.

“Immigrant integration is an area of expertise, it is not about pitting people against others,” Nahimana said.

The Rev. Kenneth Lewis, pastor of the Green Memorial AME Zion Church, said the name of the proposed office should not overlook the scope of economic opportunities for minorities.

“I think the issue of inclusion and integration is broader than an immigration issue,” Lewis said March 25. “I am an advocate for young adult engagement, the age cohort of 16 to 40 where there is a pipeline of skilled workers who can make Portland their home and contribute to the tax base.”

Lewis said he appreciated the committee’s approach in assessing what is being done and what can be done while avoiding the duplication of efforts to educate and prepare people to work. But in his view, it will also take work with local schools, colleges and businesses to determine what jobs are not getting filled and what skills are needed to fill them.

“It was a very important hearing,” Lewis said. “I think Councilor Brenerman did a very good job of hearing from a diverse population.”

Statistics showing Portland with a 2.9 percent unemployment rate is mixed news for Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Hall, because he also sees member organizations facing labor shortages.

“We need to have the conversation with everyone who is in a sub-population that is not fully integrated in Maine,” Hall said Monday.

The Chamber has already studied area employment and demographic trends and sees the need to ensure immigrants are ready to work. He agreed with Nahimana on the need for social integration and civic involvement.

“You can’t view the economics in isolation,” Hall said.

The city has stepped forward with its Helping Individuals Regain Employment, or HIRE program, recently developed to help General Assistance recipients return to work. However, the refugee services program operated by the city Department of Health & Human Services is set to close in July as a federal grant runs out, and the role of the Equal Opportunity & Multicultural Affairs Office has been in flux since the departure of former Director Rachel Talbot Ross last October.

City Manager Jon Jennings has allocated $10,000 in the fiscal year 2017 budget to study what the proposed office might do. For now, the fact-finding continues.

“I think we saw the other night we definitely had a need,” Strimling said, “and now we need to figure out what to do.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Councilor David Brenerman and the Economic Development Committee will hold an April 5 hearing on creating a city office to assist immigrants.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.