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Mayor’s Corner: “Receiving Communities” need more federal funding

By Laurent F. Gilbert Sr.

Mayor of Llewiston

Before I get onto the main subject of this column, I want to wish all readers of this column, whether you agree with me or not on the subjects I write about, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year.

We are fortunate to live in a country where we can agree to disagree in a rational manner on issues of concern. In the end, we all consider ourselves to have been blessed to live life in America. For those who may not celebrate Christmas but do celebrate other religious holidays of faith that we are all free to practice in this country, I wish each and every one of you the happiest of holidays. If they have already passed, may I offer my belated good wishes.

Receiving communities—what are they? They are communities throughout our country, like Lewiston, Auburn and Portland, that have received refugees and secondary migrants, as well as undocumented and documented immigrants. The status is insignificant; the fact remains that we all live in one and the same community and we must find ways to co-exist.

In early November, I was contacted by representatives of the Center for American Progress and invited to attend (at their expense) a Receiving Community Roundtable in Washington, D.C. on December 14 and 15, 2010. I did attend last week.

Let me first tell you about the Center for American Progress (CAP). According to its website, it “is dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through progressive ideas and actions. ‘Building on the achievements of progressive pioneers such as Teddy Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, (their) work addresses 21st century challenges such as energy, national security, economic growth and opportunity, immigration, education, and healthcare.’ They develop new policy ideas, critique the policy that stems from conservative values, and challenge the media to cover the issues that truly matter and shape the national debate.”

The Center was founded in 2003 to provide long-term leadership and support to the progressive movement. CAP is headed by its founder John D. Podesta and based in Washington, D.C. They opened another office in Los Angeles in 2007. Podesta has grown this organization from an eight-person policy operation into an organization consisting of 180 full-time employees. John Podesta served as Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton from October 1998 until January 2001.

When I received the call from CAP in November, I was told that I had been recommended by Chief (Retired) Arturo Venegas of the Sacramento, California Police Department. Art and I first met in Phoenix, Arizona at an International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference, when I was the U.S. Marshal for the District of Maine. We have remained friends ever since.

As a matter of fact, when I served as the Associate Director of the Maine Community Policing Institute at the University of Maine at Augusta, I invited him as a guest instructor on a couple of occasions to provide training to police chiefs and command officers here in Maine.

Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau and I spent over a half-hour holding a conference call with CAP to tell them of our story of refugee and secondary migration here in Lewiston and Auburn. This is when I received the invitation to attend the Receiving Community Roundtable.

This was followed up by a pre-roundtable “homework” assignment that I completed with the assistance of  Phil Nadeau and Sue Charron, director of Lewiston’s Social Services. We wrote up our story and submitted it to CAP, as did all the other 55 participants who came together for the December Roundtable.

This roundtable program was designed to address the sources of immigrant-native tension and native anxiety in communities, especially where demographic changes are occurring rapidly, and to figure out ways to calm the high emotions so that we can live and work together and push Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

I find it most unfortunate that the majority of Republicans in the U.S. Senate were successful in killing the DREAM Act this past weekend, which would have given those who came here as children to parents of undocumented aliens a path to citizenship through completing two years of college or service in the U.S. military. They have done nothing wrong and are subject to deportation to a country they do not know, having been raised as Americans. How shameful!

The 55 participants included elected officials, service providers, professors, demographers, social scientists, anthropologists, social psychologists, political scientists, religious leaders, think tank representatives and so on.

The participants expressed the fact that I offered a unique perspective coming from a law enforcement background, trainer and as an elected mayor in dealing with these issues. I was able to tell our Lewiston story and the issues we faced and addressed in a most appropriate manner over the last decade, as well as the tremendous progress that has been made by us as a “receiving community.”

I was also able to see that we were not alone as a “receiving community.” There are hundreds of communities that have experienced over the last many decades what we in Lewiston have experienced. One minor difference is that we are a secondary migrant community, rather than a primary receiving community. The fact still remains that our issues are significantly similar.

I explained that the federal funding that goes to primary settlement communities is a major financial burden on a secondary migrant community such as ours, and that it has to be fixed at the federal level. We have waiting lists for English Language Learners (ELL), and we require more federal funding in order to add to and improve our service.

I also expressed the fact that the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a branch of the U.S. State Department, was budgeted for some 70,000 refugees in a year. But, in fact, the government authorized the in-migration of 80,000 refugees in a single year. I informed the group that the federal government sets up refugees to fail. It is a major issue, especially for us receiving communities of secondary migrants.

I also pointed to the fact that U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), who is the former Mayor of Fort Wayne, wrote the introductory letter to “A Report to the Members of the Committee on Foreign Relations of the U.S. Senate,” addressing the problems dealing with the lack of funding for secondary migrants.

The report is entitled “Abandoned Upon Arrival: Implications for Refugees and Local Communities Burdened by a U.S. Resettlement System That is not Working.”

As a result of all the input from this large diverse group, a writer has been commissioned to develop a report that will come out in the spring of 2011. From that report, a “Tool Kit” for receiving communities will be developed. When I receive that report, I will share its contents with you.

In closing, I again want to wish each and every one of you the happiest of holidays!

See Mayor Gilbert’s personal blog at www.MayorLarryGilbert.com.

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