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Mayor’s Corner: “The Economic Imperative for Enacting Immigration Reform.” Part I

This is the first part of Mayor’s Gilbert’s column. The second part will be published next week.

By Laurent F. Gilbert Sr.

Mayor of Lewiston

Last week I traveled, at no cost to the city, to Washington, D.C. at the invitation of Senator Charles Schumer of New York, who chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security.

Below is the written testimony that was submitted for the committee’s review. I delivered a shorter verbal version, as we were limited to only five minutes for our verbal remarks.

There were two panels who testified. The first panelists included Robert Greifeld, CEO of NASDAQ OMX Group; David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University; Brad Smith, general counsel and vice-president for Microsoft: Dr. Puneet S. Arora, vice-president of immigration voice; Dr.Ronil Hira, associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology.

The second panelists included me, Mayor David Roefaro of Utica, N.Y. and Mayor Paul Bridges of Uvalda, Georgia.

To view the webcast of the entire hearing, go to the following link: http://judiciary.senate.gov/hearings/hearing.cfm?id=3d9031b47812de2592c3baeba62beeb0.

Here are excerpts from my written testimony:

Somali refugees started arriving in Lewiston in 2001 to seek a quality of life they could not find or afford in many larger cities, such as Atlanta, Memphis and Nashville. These family-oriented refugees were fearful of life in those cities where they were exposed to criminal activity, drugs and gang violence. They had fled violence abroad and in some cases in their refugee camps and were seeking what all Americans seek in their lives: a home where an individual or family can live peacefully and become part of a community.

 

Word of mouth to friends and relatives outside of Maine led more secondary-migrants to Lewiston, a city and state that are statistically one of the safest in the country and where these families and their children can receive a good education. Since 2001, secondary migrant relocations to Lewiston are estimated to be around 4,000 refugees, primarily from Somalia. Asylum seekers from Somalia and Sudan, and more recently those seeking asylum from Djibouti, have settled in Lewiston. Our Twin City of Auburn has received some 1,000 refugees, primarily from Somalia.

As the refugee population started to grow in Lewiston, a great many residents became concerned about the new secondary arrivals that have occurred every single month going back to 2002. A number of opinions about the new refugee arrivals were expressed, both privately and publicly, as fear and in many cases prejudice fueled the public and sometimes political discussion about Lewiston’s “new Mainers.” There was fear of the cultural differences, dress and race differences in the “whitest state in the nation” (as determined by the 2000 Census).

Some of the reported conflicts in the schools and public questions about the relocations came to the attention of the then-mayor. The mayor wrote an open letter to the Somali leaders asking them to stem the tide of in-migration by the Somali population.

Media reports of the mayor’s letter enraged the Somali leaders, who demonstrated their disfavor publicly, which caught the attention of both the national and international media.

Though there have been measurably more public, state, non-profit and academic support for the refugees, rumors and misguided myths about refugees, funding, cultural and religious customs persisted. To this day, these rumors and myths about free food, cars, special prayer rooms for Muslims in the public schools and the like add fuel to a fire that has not been fully extinguished in the minds of many residents.

For many of the misinformed, it is perceived that refugees are taking resources away from local residents as the increased competition for reduced levels of federal and state social services by qualified refugees will make it harder to qualify for welfare cash assistance; priority for low-income housing; and medical services, as “native” individuals are pushed to the back of an otherwise eligible list.

Lewiston’s high unemployment rate, which has remained at about 9% since the beginning of 2009, is assumed to be much higher within the refugee population. In the recently published book “Somalis in Maine: Crossing Cultural Currents,” Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau’s essay showed that employment levels had been steadily declining since 2006. Nadeau postulates that the combination of higher levels of overall unemployment and the significant underfunding of workforce training for underskilled and undereducated, limited-English-speaking populations will continue to fuel refugee unemployment challenges in Lewiston and in other parts of the country with similar refugee populations.

Though there are certainly many misinformed and misguided notions about our new refugee residents, what has been researched and reported by the city is that inadequate federal funding associated with a refugee resettlement program simply does not meet the many needs of our refugee residents. The thousands of secondary migrants for which the Office of Refugee Resettlement provides little to no direct funding have largely been left behind as the responsibility of local government.

For example, if a family is initially settled in Atlanta, Georgia, then after two months they decide to move to Lewiston, Maine, the remaining six months of the eight-month funding does not follow them. This creates a severe financial burden on the receiving community. (See the July 21, 2010 report to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations entitled “Abandoned Upon Arrival: Implications for Refugees and Local Communities Burdened by a U.S. Resettlement System that is Not Working.” In particular see Ranking Member Senator Richard G. Lugar’s Letter of Transmittal to this committee.)

Some community members perceive that the new arrivals do not want to learn English or adapt to our culture. Some residents become angry when observing groups of refugee adults gathering on the sidewalks in our downtown and perceive that activity as their unwillingness to work. In reality, many refugee adults are in need of intense ESL (English as a Second Language) education and employment training which is severely underfunded and cannot meet the needs of an economy which demands no less than a high school education.

For many refugee adults, the prospect of attaining an eighth-grade education is unlikely given the federal government’s unwillingness to support comprehensive work ready programming upon their arrival.

As mayor and with a law enforcement career background, I see it as my responsibility to lead by example. I have reached out to the refugee/immigrant community and advocated on their behalf in the state capital and here in Washington. I have had new immigrants serve on my advisory committee during my campaign for office. My wife and I attend their annual Somali and United States Independence Day celebrations. We eat and dance with our new Mainers. On the street I greet them in their language, which at times brings surprise followed by a smile and a like response. Genuine outreach is critical. I have established friendships with many immigrants.

In my last employ before becoming mayor, I trained over 600 police officers throughout Maine in “Cultural Awareness for Law Enforcement.” I would bring in three to four refugee/immigrants from nearly 20 different countries throughout the world. Although there were differences, what rose to the surface with all the different cultures, were the similarities. These were quality-of-life issues such as family life, employment, education, religion, music, etc.—that which we all seek. Officers could see that we truly are one humanity.

Collaboration and education are keys to success. As a city, we took the lead in forming collaborative partnerships in order to service the immigrant population and educated community service providers and community members.  Educating all partners on the cultures reduces anxiety and results in more welcoming attitudes as does educating the immigrants on our culture.

We collaborated with the state Career Center (employment agency) to enhance employment opportunities for refugees. Given the almost complete absence of workforce training funding, the city was awarded a special Economic Development Administration appropriation for a refugee workforce development demonstration project. The funding focused on job coaching, resume writing and other work ready skills to prepare refugees for the American workplace. Although very limited, the federal funding has demonstrated that refugees can become better prepared for the workplace and that employment can reduce the burden on local taxpayers which in turn reduces resident hostility.

Our school department has done some exemplary work to reduce student tensions and educate staff. Their work has evolved and has resulted in a student-teacher-administration approach that has produced so few internal cultural and racial conflicts within the school that the Center for the Prevention of Hate often refers to their work as a model for other schools to emulate.

Over the years, we also met with various ethnic groups to learn more about their culture and needs. Since 2001 many more players have joined the collaboration and ongoing community workshops are held to open the communication between community members and immigrants.

Education reduces the rumors and encourages a welcoming atmosphere. A few ethnic self-help groups have emerged along with many immigrant-owned businesses that have been established on the main street of our downtown and surrounding areas. This has increased overall community interaction with our refugee residents (and refugee business people) and dispels some of the misunderstandings about the immigrant work ethic.

Our immigrant entrepreneurs are bringing new life and energy to the downtown. In a couple of downtown blocks of our main street, over a dozen immigrant-owned businesses occupy formerly vacant storefronts. The businesses include general merchandise markets, specialty foods and good, restaurants, coffee shops, tax preparation services, translation services and clothing stores. Some have started taxi-cab companies.


 

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