Should Maine invite more refugees?

As Maine confronts a future with fewer residents and, therefore, dwindling economic prospects, there is one small but regular source of new arrivals.

Every year, about 300 to 400 refugees make a new home in Maine. They come directly, and legally, from refugee camps or their home countries, to which they cannot return due to fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality or political opinion.

Maine has now taken in refugees from more than 30 countries, with most arriving recently from Somalia and Iraq.

Some people are wary of resettling refugees because they picture them taking something away — such as jobs or welfare assistance. But while refugees do require mostly federal aid to help them adjust to their new lives, they can have a profound economic impact in the long term.

About half a percent of refugees worldwide are placed in the U.S., according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Most abroad will not find a new, permanent home.

Looking at the need overseas, some Maine communities, especially those seeking to boost their population, might wonder if they can request having refugees resettled within their town lines.

Could Bangor, for instance, petition to be a resettlement site for a dozen or so refugees a year?

“If they would love to do it, we would be more than happy to start working there,” said Tarlan Ahmadov, program manager for Refugee and Immigration Services at Catholic Charities Maine. As the only refugee resettlement program in Maine, it provides orientation for new arrivals, case management and ongoing support.

While Bangor leaders have not expressed specific interest, the city does have many of the services newly arrived refugees need: teachers of English as a second language, translation services at hospitals, public transportation, day-care centers and housing availability.

But the main consideration when relocating refugees is knowing they are welcomed by the local government and people, Ahmadov said.

“On the one hand, I think Bangor as a whole is supportive on moral and humanitarian grounds for helping our fellow human beings. … On the other, our expenses for social services are already quite high, and there may be worries about stretching our resources further,” said Ben Sprague, chairman of the Bangor City Council. “I do believe a case could be made on both humanitarian and economic grounds, but short-term costs could be a concern to some.”

Each year, the president, after consulting with Congress, decides the maximum number of refugees to admit to the country, based on national interest and humanitarian concerns. The refugee admission ceiling for 2014 is 70,000, with 15,000 allowed to come from Africa and 33,000 from near East and South Asia.

(For comparison, the Hagadera refugee camp in Kenya, with residents primarily from Somalia, has 138,102 refugees — similar to the size of Portland, Lewiston and Bangor combined.)

Before they fly to the U.S., refugees are screened multiple times by the United Nations, the Office of International Migration, the State Department and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Refugees with tuberculosis, extreme mental retardation, and Hansen’s disease — also known as leprosy — are excluded from coming to the U.S.

And each year, Catholic Charities, under contract with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which connects with the State Department, gauges the capacity of host communities and the organization itself to properly support a certain number of refugees until they adjust to their new lives.

Will newcomers be able to find employment? Where will they live and go to school? How will they learn English?

“We want to make the people welcome. We don’t want to overwhelm the state,” Ahmadov said.

Whereas other types of immigrants — who might be in the U.S. to work for a specific employer — can decide themselves where to live, refugees don’t have final say about their placement.

Sometimes they leave their original city for another one, as Maine has experienced; many refugees moved here after being resettled to more dangerous cities like Atlanta and St. Louis. The U.S. Department of State and its resettlement agencies try to place refugees close to where they have family, where their language is more widely spoken, or where there are medical services they need.

“It’s not just bringing people over here but making sure the refugees have the services they need and the communities will welcome them,” said Christine Vaughan, an official with the State Department.

Part of that welcome depends on an area’s employers. Refugees will not thrive if people are not open to hiring them. Hiring a refugee may require a different process than the one for hiring an American-born citizen. Employers will have a hard time finding a reference to call for someone from Burundi, for instance.

“The business community is going to be really key,” said Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland.

Some might have a perception that refugees take jobs away from Mainers. While refugees do need jobs, they also consume goods, which supports local businesses.

In Androscoggin County, where many refugees have settled and found work, the unemployment rate is 4.9 percent. In Cumberland County, it is 4.1 percent. Both are lower than the state average of 5.5 percent.

Refugees are eligible for federal refugee cash assistance for up to eight months after their arrival. Other state- and federally funded medical and social support services are also available, and municipalities may provide general assistance.

Over time, refugees’ economic power outweighs the initial investment. A study of refugees in Cleveland, Ohio, which accepted 600 refugees in 2012, found, “At the local level, refugees provide increased demand for goods and services through their new purchasing power and can be particularly revitalizing in communities that otherwise have a declining population.”

The resettlement agency there spent $4.8 million on refugee services in 2012 and, according to the study, saw an economic return of about $48 million. It considered three sources: refugee families’ household spending, refugee-owned businesses, and the ongoing spending of the refugee service organizations themselves.

The direct economic impact totaled $22.2 million when considering only refugee household spending.

As the least-diverse and oldest state in the nation, with a declining population, Maine’s biggest challenge is its demographics. That doesn’t mean older people aren’t valuable contributors to society. It means the state’s economy isn’t sustainable based on current trends, as fewer working-age people pay taxes and participate in community life.

Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, the assistant Republican leader in the Maine Senate, emphasized the need to draw more people to the state or boost the number of people who stay.

“To the extent we can be known as a welcoming place for motivated people who want to pursue the American dream, we ought to be doing that,” Katz said. “If we don’t turn these numbers around, any hope of becoming a really prosperous state, with economic opportunities for our kids and grandchildren, is really going to be difficult to achieve.”


Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.