Mainers who view undocumented immigrants as a problem should instead see them as a potential solution to a demographic and economic crisis facing a state with a rapidly aging population, according to panelists at an immigration policy forum held Wednesday at the First Parish in Portland.

Recent immigrants have enriched and maybe even preserved Portland public schools at a time when a nearly paralyzed federal immigration system makes it almost impossible for asylum seekers to get work permits and become contributing members of Maine communities, panelists said.

In Portland, Maine’s largest city, some of its schools likely would have closed in recent years if it weren’t for an infusion of immigrants in the past decade that pushed the number of languages spoken in the city to about 60, said Mayor Michael Brennan, one of five panelists.

“We’d have one fewer high school, one fewer middle school and probably two fewer elementary schools,” Brennan said to an audience of 140 people. “We need more people in the city if we intend to grow as a city.”

Brennan and other panelists urged Mainers to view immigrants as a skilled resource and adopt more welcoming attitudes and policies to help the state thrive in the face of a dwindling working-age population and a growing 65-plus population.

“If you’re going to make this a political issue and use fear (to promote anti-immigrant policies), you’re not going to get very far,” said Chris Hall, president of the Portland Regional Chamber. The other panelists were Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigration Legal Advocacy Project; Tae Chong, business adviser at Coastal Enterprise Inc.; and Charles Lawton, chief economist at Planning Decisions Inc.

The Faith in Action Committee of First Parish in Portland hosted the evening forum at a time when immigration policy is a hot topic across the nation and in Maine. A day earlier, the World Affairs Council of Maine kicked off a series titled “Celebrating Immigration” that featured speeches by former Maine Attorney General James Tierney, director of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School; and Eva Millona, co-chairwoman of the National Partnership for New Americans and executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

The immigration controversy in Maine currently centers on Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s decision last year to stop reimbursing General Assistance funding to municipalities that provide aid to undocumented immigrants.

General Assistance is a welfare program administered by cities and towns and partially funded by the state Department of Health and Human Services. The program provides vouchers to the poor for rent, utilities and other basic needs.

Portland, Westbrook and the Maine Municipal Association have filed a lawsuit against the state challenging LePage’s action, which has been called unconstitutional by state Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat. Portland officials instituted a budget and hiring freeze in November anticipating that the city could lose as much as $3.2 million this fiscal year.

Roche said the General Assistance funding controversy in Maine is just one problem caused by a complicated, overwhelmed and effectively broken federal immigration system. Many of the undocumented immigrants in Maine are asylum-seekers from war-torn countries who have been waiting months or years for work permits.

General Assistance “is a terrible way to support” these newcomers, Brennan said, but given the federal government’s inaction, it’s the only option in a city built by immigrants where every person is valued.

“We will continue to resist” the LePage administration’s efforts to restrict aid to undocumented immigrants, Brennan said.

Many on the panel agreed that immigrants offer a ready solution to problems associated with Maine being the oldest state in the nation. Its median age – 43.9 years – is the highest in the United States, in part because Maine also has a dwindling younger population, according to the U.S. Census. The state’s proportion of people age 65 and older – 17.7 percent – is second only to Florida’s 18.6 percent.

Chong pointed out that 15 percent of Portland’s population is now foreign-born. Fifty percent of the immigrants who came to the city in the past five years have a college education, and the median age of that group is 28.

“So we have incredibly young, skilled immigrants coming to Maine,” Chong said. Unfortunately, some may have limited English-speaking skills or qualifications that don’t transfer easily to fill as many as 1,000 science and technology jobs that remain unfilled, panelists said.

As much as newcomers may require assistance to get settled, get jobs and start their lives here, “we need to see people as assets, too,” Chong said.

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