PORTLAND, Maine — Just days before the presidential election, Gov. Paul LePage has announced that Maine state government will no longer cooperate with the federal Refugee Resettlement Program.
In a letter addressed to President Barack Obama, LePage cited concerns about how refugees coming to the state are screened.
“I have lost confidence in the federal government’s ability to safely and responsibly run the refugee program and no longer want the state of Maine associated with that shortcoming,” wrote the governor.
Dated Nov. 4, four days before Election Day, the governor’s letter may score political points with anti-immigration voters, but it is unlikely to affect whether refugees continue to come to Maine.
Republican nominee Donald Trump — whom LePage has endorsed — has made curtailing immigration to the United States a signature issue in his run for the White House, calling at various points for a wall along the Mexican border and a ban on Muslims entering the United States. Trump is seeking to capture at least one of Maine’s four Electoral College votes by winning the more conservative, less diverse 2nd Congressional District.
The letter came nearly a year after LePage announced he would “take every lawful measure in my power to prevent” the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Maine.
But immigration is the purview of the federal government, and states cannot bar people from crossing their borders. This is why private organizations such as Catholic Charities have been able to work with the federal government to resettle Syrian refugees in Maine, despite the governor’s outspoken opposition.
LePage’s letter articulates acute anxieties about terrorism that are shared by many of his political bent, and in part driving support for Trump. The governor in the letter points to Adnan Fazeli, an Iranian refugee, who left Maine to fight for the Islamic State, as an example of the failure in how refugees are screened. However, evidence gathered by the FBI in the Fazeli case suggests that he was radicalized while living in the United States.
Refugees go through a multi-phase screening administered by the United Nations, U.S. State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and several other government agencies before they are admitted to the country. The process includes lengthy interviews with trained Homeland Security officials and usually takes between 18 and 24 months, according to the State Department.
The governor also claimed that refugees have become a burden on Maine’s social services. His administration has sought to end General Assistance benefits for refugees and asylum seekers, a move that triggered a lawsuit by Portland, Westbrook and advocates for new Americans
Abdullahi Ahmed, a Somali refugee and an assistant principal at Portland’s Deering High School, said that the governor is out of step with the “very welcoming people” of Maine. And he took exception to the suggestion that refugees drain, rather than contribute to, the state.
“We are a nation of immigrants and people who came here,” said Ahmed. “What he’s doing is picking on the poor and unfortunate and the weakest among us.”
LePage is far from alone in his concerns with refugees coming to the country. Texas recently severed its ties with the federal refugee resettlement program. Kansas and New Jersey previously did so, but refugees have continued to arrive in those states.