Robert Macdonald, the mayor of Lewiston, Maine, recalls the first refugees his small city north of Portland took in some 15 years ago.
Catholic Social Services helped resettle five French-speaking families from Togo, choosing Lewiston because of its prevalence of French speakers from Canada. The relief organization said it would pick up the costs of resettlement, costing the city nothing. And it kept that promise, Macdonald said.
Then the floodgates opened.
It did not take long for word to spread, said Macdonald, that Lewiston was a good place for foreign asylum seekers to go. Since then, many more refugees have come — about 5,000 in a city of 36,000, he estimated. The costs of accommodating those folks has been modest, although it has put pressures on the school system.
What really hurts, Macdonald said, is the large number of people who have used visas to come to Lewiston and then have applied for asylum. While the federal government processes those claims, local taxpayers are on the hook for housing, food, medical costs and other expenses.
“It has had an impact on schools. A lot of these people don’t speak English,” he said. “They settle into communities like ours. Our tax rate is through the roof. We’re probably one of the poorest communities in Maine.”
The Obama administration announced on Thursday it plans to accept an additional 10,000 refugees from war-torn Syria and raise the 70,000 annual quota on refugees admitted into the country. It is unclear where they would go once they arrive in the United States. Macdonald said it hopes it is not Lewiston.
“Quite frankly, we can’t take anymore,” he said.
Pressure to Act
The United States and other wealthy Western nations are under pressure to step up efforts to resettle people fleeing ISIS, which has taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
The Migration Policy Institute points out that the ceiling on refugees has fallen dramatically from the early 1980s, when the United States was admitting more than 200,000 refugees a year. Michelle Mittelstadt, spokeswoman for the Washington-based organization, noted that the Syrian civil war is in its fourth year now and that the conflict is spreading.
“There has never been such a high level,” she said.
Officially, the institute takes no position on the proper number of refugees that the United States should accept. But the organization’s co-founder, Kathleen Newland, argued in an opinion piece for CNN that the country should be doing much more.
“Ultimately, refugees have for decades given the United States tremendous payback for its humanitarian leadership,” she wrote. “We would be a poorer country — in pocket and in spirit — if we had not taken them in.”
In fiscal year 2014, the federal government spent more than $1 billion processing and resettling refugees.
In fiscal year 2014, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the United States took in 69,986 refugees. Iraq (19,651) accounted for the most, followed by Burma (14,577), Somalia (9,011), Bhutan (8,316) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (4,502).
Asylum represents a small sliver of the foreigners who relocate to the United States ever year, and the process can be cumbersome. Under federal law, asylum can only be granted to people who can demonstrate that they have experienced persecution or have a “well-founded fear” of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group.
After granting asylum, the federal government works with private groups like the National Conference of Bishops and the Church World Services to find communities. Refugees then can petition to have family members come to the United States.
The federal government spent more than $1 billion in fiscal year 2014 processing and resettling refugees.
Mittelstadt said ongoing costs to the federal government are relatively small because benefits financial assistance is limited.
“It is a program that has the philosophy that refugees should become self-sufficient very early in their stay in the United States,” she said.
Large numbers of refugees in some relatively small communities have sparked a culture clash.
Mittelstadt said she is not aware of any study that has attempted a comprehensive accounting of the costs to state and local governments because eligibilities for assistance programs vary so widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
But large numbers of refugees in some relatively small communities have sparked culture clash and fueled concerns over competition for jobs and government services.
Greeley, Colorado, has become a popular landing spot for Somali refugees, many of whom have gone to work in local meat-packing plants. The Global Refugee Center, which offers English classes, citizenship classes, and nutritional and other wellness programs to refugees, has served about 1,400 people since 2010.
Emily Odiwuor, program coordinator, acknowledged that the transition has been bumpy at times but has not been as rocky as in some other communities.
“I think at first, it’s always going to be difficult. And it has been difficult for a small community to accommodate diversity,” she said. “There will always be the naysayers out there.”
When one of those beef plants, JBS USA, fired a group of Muslim employees who had wanted prayer breaks during Ramadan, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued in 2010. A federal judge this summer ruled that the suit can go to trial.
The growth has begun to spill over to nearby Cheyenne, Wyoming. The Wyoming TribuneEagle reported last year that the city has seen an influx of Somalis looking for housing assistance.
Odiwuor said the housing authority in Greeley has not been able to accommodate the demand for assistance.
“There has been a long waiting list and changes in policy in how people can transfer their Section 8 (housing vouchers),” she said. “I think people just need to go where the services are.”
Some communities have resisted efforts to increase resettlements:
- In August 2014, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Athens-Clarke County’s Democratic mayor, Nancy Denson, sought to halt the resettlement of 150 refugees. She wrote in a letter to Georgia officials that the plan would strain local services.
- Another Democrat, Springfield, Massachusetts Mayor Domenic Sarno, asked the federal government not to send any more refugees to his city. “I have enough urban issues to deal with,” he told the Associated Press. “Enough is enough.”
- In 2012, the New Hampshire House of Representatives passed a bill that would have allowed towns to request a one-year moratorium on new refugee resettlements. But the state Senate killed the proposal.
Macdonald, the Lewiston mayor, said the newcomers from Africa have made positive contributions to his town. He said the Somali refugees — particularly the girls who had been denied an education in their homeland — are hard-working students who have helped raise the local graduation rate. Some of the new arrivals have started businesses.
But he said he had gotten a cool reception from the federal government. For example, he said he requested Christian immigrants who might have an easier time assimilated because of an active Greek Orthodox church. “I was told, ‘You take what you get,’” he said.
Macdonald also said he asked for federal funds to pay for an English-immersion program to help refugee families assimilate. “I’m still waiting to hear about that,” he said.
Perhaps hardest to take, Macdonald said, is allegations of bigotry that have come his way.
“We have these well-heeled communities to the south of us, who don’t take in anyone,” he said. “But they point fingers at us for being awful.”