On Wednesday, immigrants, community leaders and representatives from Maine labor and business organizations gathered on the steps of the First Parish Church in Portland to call on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
“It was a powerful and moving moment for me personally to become a citizen of the United States, with all the rights and obligations as my fellow citizens. I want to make sure those individuals living in the shadows can instead live freely and experience the same feeling I did when I became a US citizen,” said Abdi Matan, an immigrant small business owner from Lewiston and member of the Lewiston Auburn Neighborhood Network (LANN). “I join others today in standing for comprehensive immigration reform: just and humane reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, the unification of their families, and labor protections for all workers, including undocumented workers.”
Recently the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO agreed on principles on how future immigrant workers can be a part of the nation's economy. Representatives of Maine business and labor groups highlighted this growing consensus and discussed the need for comprehensive reform, including a path to citizenship, in order to strengthen Maine's communities and local economy.
“It is a simple truth that if we are to grow our economy and incomes, Maine will need more people in the workforce; people who currently aren’t here, who will move to Maine communities, participate in the economy, raise families, and make Maine their home. So far, we in Maine have only tiptoed around this issue and have not addressed it in a way to turn this trend,” said Ed Cervone, President of the Maine Development Foundation and a representative of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. “We need to think more broadly. We must sell Maine to the whole world – people of different cultures, races, and skills. Greater diversity would bring great economic benefits. Maine’s own history of foreign immigration supports this.”
“We support immigration reform because at the core, this is a workers’ rights issue. Nobody should fear losing everything if they speak up against unsafe working conditions, wage theft, or any of the many abuses workers’ currently face,” said Maine AFL-CIO President Don Berry. “We’re proud of our organizations for coming to consensus on the new proposed W-Visa program. We applaud our counterparts at the national level for working hard to find common ground on the subject of future work authorization.”
Speakers involved in the local immigrant community shared their stories about America's broken immigration system and encouraged Senators Collins and King to take a leading role in supporting legislation to improve the nation's immigration system.
“A comprehensive immigration bill must include a path for 11 million undocumented individuals to obtain legal status that does not make them second-class citizens. Every day we see clients who came to the U.S. to improve their lives and the lives of their children,” said Sue Roch of the Immigration Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP). “It is essential that we take this opportunity to fix the problems that affect our communities here in Maine. When families can stay together, when refugees and asylees have a fair and efficient process for seeking protection, and when people have legal status, they are able to become full participants in our society.”
In January, members of the Senate unveiled a bi-partisan blueprint for immigration reform legislation. A formal proposal is expected to be released early next week. As the Senate takes up the issue, Senators Collins and King are expected to be major figures in the debate.
Maine's immigrant rights groups are currently organizing a May 1st march and rally in Portland. In 2009, more than 500 Mainers marched in support of reform during a similar event.
"This is an economic issue and it's a demographic issue, but most importantly it's a moral issue," said Maine People's Alliance Immigration Organizer, Alain Nahimana. "Every day, families are split apart and human rights are ignored because of our broken system. Senators Collins and King have an opportunity to take a leading role in making sure that comprehensive immigration reform finally passes and that we use this opportunity to strengthen our communities, our state and our nation."