There is an old Congo proverb that says, “The teeth are smiling, but is the heart?” We expect to pass through this world but once. Any good that we do to aid our fellow creatures, we must do so now. We cannot deter or neglect it, for we will not pass this way again. If we desire to be useful, we can. If one is going to play the game properly, you’d better know the rules. One thing is perfectly clear: We, as human beings, must be willing to accept people who are different from ourselves.
I leave the state for one week, just one mere measly week to attend the American Medical Association’s Interim Meeting in Florida, only to return to find that once again, our beloved Gov. Paul LePage has walked a little further out on the plank. It seems that he is either infatuated by the drama or he is entranced by his own self-importance.
Gov. LePage has unilaterally decided that Maine will no longer participate in the federal government’s refugee resettlement program. I guess this decision is consistent with his obviously well-known anti-immigrant and anti-others sentiments. In a statement released by Gov. LePage, he indicated that “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”. He went a step further during an interview on the conservative Howie Carr Show where the good governor pledged to send any “illegal” immigrant packing from Maine. “If we find any undocumented people in the state of Maine, which I cannot put in jail, I am going to buy them a bus ticket, I am going to buy them a lobster roll, and I am going to send them to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”
Gov. LePage says he is a “student of history”. That statement alone should be a flaming red flag. In 1939, one of the most shameful periods of American history occurred, later becoming known as “The Voyage of the Damned”. During this time, the United States denied entry of an ocean liner carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Adolf Hitler’s Germany hovered aimlessly for 72 hours just a couple of miles off the Florida coast, while Jewish leaders in Washington frantically begged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to let the passengers into the United States. Roosevelt said no, and the SS St. Louis sailed back to Europe, where World War II was just weeks away. Many of the passengers would fall back into the hands of the Nazis they were trying to escape. About 250 of them did not survive the war. The decision to turn away the St. Louis was a grotesquely ugly moment in American history, one for which Congress and the U.S. State Department would eventually apologize.
Another historical fact that seems to escape the governor is that Refugee resettlement is a federal program, and state governors have no more authority to deny residents from Syria, Iraq, Somalia or any other country into Maine, than they have to deny entry of residents from any other state in the union. The governor seems to be placing all of his eggs in one basket, invoking a rule that allows states to withdraw from administering welfare, health and social programs to refugees. Those rules say that in the event of a state’s withdrawal, the federal government can simply designate another entity to administer the program. If public assistance is such a great concern for the governor, this might be a good time for him to reconsider his stance against Medicaid Expansion.
The governor also needs to understand that there are differences in the definitions of refugees and asylum seekers. These differences were articulated by the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees in 1951 and in its 1967 protocol, as well as U. S. national laws and procedures. The Refugee Convention obligates states that are party to the convention, the United States being a signee, grants protection to those “who have been persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion”. Refugees meet the definition laid out in the formal convention as noted above but seek their refugee status from outside the country. These refugees are coming to Maine and other states fleeing murder, torture, persecution and extreme violence.
Refugees coming to the U.S. go through a multi-phase screening administered by the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and several other government agencies’. The process includes lengthy interviews with trained Homeland Security officials and running the refugees’ fingerprints and biographic information through federal criminal and terrorism databases. Syrians receive an extra level of scrutiny, the details of which are classified. The vetting is done abroad and generally takes between 18 and 24 months.
Asylum seekers on the other hand are already in the United States, seeking admission at a port of entry. They must meet the same requirements as refugees but declare their intention to seek asylum upon entering the United States. The credibility of their case for asylum is assessed by an asylum officer or immigration judge and this process typically takes at least six months. Those who are found not to be refugees or in need of any other form of international protection can be sent back to their country of origin. Federal law also prohibits asylum seekers from working for at least 6 months after they apply for asylum.
Courts have consistently ruled that the federal government is responsible for refugees and immigration. Just this past June, a federal judge rejected Texas’ attempt to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees in that state. One month ago, a federal appeals court blocked Vice-President Elect Mike Pence from interfering with the disbursement of federal funds to refugees.
Anyone who has spent time in the state of Maine is aware of the state’s demographic situation—an aging population, young people moving away, and the corresponding challenges for the labor force, school systems, municipal and state revenues, and the vitality of our communities. Maine’s future will largely depend on the steps we take today to ensure that we reverse the demographic decline that has been unfolding in slow motion for decades.
Reckoning with our demographic challenges requires finding ways to make Maine’s population more diverse. In short, the future of Maine depends upon the steps we take to make Maine a welcome destination for those from beyond our national borders: immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. Finally, it is imperative that Gov LePage recognize that inclusion benefits and celebrates us all. Slamming the door would be a betrayal of our values. Our nation can welcome refugees desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security at the same time. We can and must do both.