Immigration controls in Maine could lead to worker shortage
A proposed law that would give government officials the right to ask for proof of citizenship if they suspect someone of being an illegal immigrant has led to considerable debate throughout the state. The legislation put forward by Maine Representative Kathleen Chase (R-District 147) of Wells has been compared to Arizona’s controversial immigration policies that were passed early last year.
Many local business leaders and civil rights advocates worry that the new law could hurt the state economy, especially the tourism sector, in which over 1,000 foreign students come to work each summer, according to the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE).
“Maine’s government needs to send a strong message not just that we are open for business, but that we are open to immigrants,” Beth Stickney, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, said in a press release.
Immigrant advocacy groups are concerned that the proposed law could scare legal immigrants from working in Maine, which they say could harm the local economy. Opponents to the legislation also note that illegal immigration is not a significant problem in Maine.
“Maine, which has historically been the most homogeneous state in the nation is not overrun with immigrants,” Adam Lee, chairman of Lee Auto Malls, said in a press release. “We have become a refugee resettlement location in Lewiston and Portland for people from war-torn Somalia and other parts of Africa. Let’s not add to their stress of leaving their homeland and settling in a new one.”
According to the United States Census Bureau, the state had approximately 40,000 foreign-born residents in 2008, a mere 3 percent of the overall population. Out of this 40,000, the majority were naturalized U.S. citizens, as reported in the Kennebec Journal. In another survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, it was estimated that only 0.5 percent of the Maine workforce in 2008 consisted of illegal workers.
“Creating undue burdens for our newcomers would not be good for any of us,” David Barber, president and chief executive officer of Barber Foods (Portland), said in a press release. “Maine’s immigration policy must enhance our reputation as a welcoming and business-friendly state.”
Chase, who filed the initial law request, acknowledged that her proposal was based on a request from a local constituent and that she herself was unsure about the seriousness of Maine’s immigration problem.
“There are those who think [it’s a problem],” she said in a press release. “But I’m not necessarily saying I’m one of them.”
The primary goal of the bill is to strengthen Maine’s coastal and land borders with Canada, according to its proponents. Chase’s district, surprisingly, is located in southern Maine, one of the furthest regions from Canada.
“It’s not intended to be harsh or put us in a police state,” Chase added. “It’s just to protect our shores, our borders, our country.”
Other proponents of the law point out that Maine, a state that is already struggling to fund public services, should not be a haven for illegal immigrants to receive benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid, and other public assistance.
Governor Paul LePage (R-Maine) has declined to comment on the issue, although he made it clear during his fall 2010 campaign that he would “take care of Mainers first.”
At this point in time, it is unclear whether the bill will gain enough support in the Augusta State House. However, many local business leaders have vowed to put up a fight. Along with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and the Maine Civil Liberties Union, they have formed the Maine Compact, a group that intends to monitor the immigration proposals and to take legal action should they ascertain that a new bill is unconstitutional.
“Arizona-style racial profiling and ‘show-me-your-papers’ tactics are un-American and unconstitutional,” Executive Director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union Shenna Bellows said in a press release. “This proposal undermines public safety by diverting scarce security resources toward false threats and eroding trust between law enforcement and communities of color.”
The Maine Compact has advocated for five principles that they hope will guide the immigration discussion. Included in their declaration: “Immigrants are integrated into communities across Maine. We must adopt a humane approach to this reality, reflecting our unique culture, history and spirit of inclusion. The way we treat immigrants will say more about us as a free society and less about our immigrant neighbors. Maine should always be a place that welcomes people of goodwill,” states the group’s website.
The immigration question that has gained national attention will continue to be critical part of the discourse in Maine throughout this year.
“Personally, I think the federal government should probably do more,” said Chase in a press release. “But let’s put [the issue] out there for people to at least discuss it.”