September 23, 2019
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Refugee resettlements plunge in Maine under Trump limits

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Hagi Hagi, a refugee from Somalia, waves a flag after becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in a ceremony at City Hall in Portland in June 2016. A group of 22 refugees became new Americans in advance of World Refugee Day that year.

The United States, once a ray of hope for those fleeing persecution in their home countries for religious, racial or other reasons, has tightened its open-arms policy under the Trump administration, and the results are palpable, according to new data compiled by the Associated Press.

Fewer than half of the allowed 45,000 refugees under the U.S. Department of State’s Refugee Admissions Program are on track to enter the country this year.

Maine is following national trends. Only halfway through the federal fiscal year that started last Oct. 1, Maine has taken in 21 refugees compared to 229 during all of last year, according to the Associated Press.

The AP found that of the states that usually resettle about 100 refugees in the first five months of the fiscal year, Maine and Connecticut were among the eight states experiencing the largest percentage decreases, with refugee caseloads dropping 75 percent from 2014 to 2018.

From 2009 to 2018, Portland had the highest number of refugees: 232 in 2009, which rose to a high of 439 in 2016 but then dropped to 225 in 2017 and 17 so far in 2018.

Bangor and Orono have taken in fewer than five refugees each in their biggest years over the time span, while Biddeford, Auburn, Lewiston, South Portland and Westbrook all have been relative havens for refugees, but with declining numbers since 2015.

“We don’t take in that many refugees in Lewiston,” said Sue Charron, director of social services in Lewiston. From July 1, 2017 to February 28 of this year, the city took in seven refugees compared to 20 in the full year from June 30, 2016 to June 30, 2017.

“Some of it has to do with the changes in policy by the Trump administration,” she said.

Some of the focus on who is and isn’t allowed in as a refugee has turned to those considered potential national security threats because of their country of origin or religion.

“There’s certainly a pretty dramatic shift” in the mix and number of refugees being allowed in, Kathleen Newland, a fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, told the Associated Pres s.

Former President Barack Obama raised the ceiling for refugees from 85,000 in fiscal 2016 to a record-high 110,000 the following fiscal year. However, new President Donald Trump quickly cut that down to 50,000. In fiscal 2018 he further shaved it to 45,000, according to the Center for Immigration Studies.

The Associated Press said the fewer than 10,000 refugees the United States has resettled so far in fiscal 2018 may result in the country accepting the smallest number of refugees, an estimated 20,000 for the year, since Congress passed the 1980 law creating the modern resettlement system.

Also dampening the number of refugees were three executive orders by Trump for travel bans on refugees from certain countries said to be threats to U.S. security.

On top of that, last October the administration toughened its security checks on refugees, essentially making them go through a security screening twice before being allowed to come to the United States, said Hannah DeAngelis, program director at Catholic Charities Maine, Refugee and Immigration Services in Portland, which meets arriving refugees at the airport.

“We have about 200 people in the pipeline to come to Maine, but a lot of them have been halted or paused because they have to go through a new screening process where all family members and those close to them are called,” she said.

“The new screening process is the current biggest reason we aren’t seeing as many refugees now, but the travel bans and new ceilings on refugees compound the matter,” she said.

DeAngelis said Maine has been particularly hard hit because the travel bans target countries from which refugees typically come to Maine, primarily Somalia and Iraq.

The numbers of Iraqi, Somali and Syrian refugees, who made up more than a third of all resettlements in the United States since 2014, have almost entirely disappeared, according to the AP, with all three countries’ refugees comprising less than 3.5 percent of the 2018 resettlements.

Maine reflects the national trend in the changes in refugees’ countries of origin. Of the refugees this year, the highest number, seven, are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, followed by refugees hailing from Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea.

Iraqi refugees had topped the list nationally and in the state in 2009, but in the past couple years have given way to those fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo, other central African nations, Bhutan and Burma, all nations in political strife. Somalis also settled in Lewiston, Portland and Westbrook.

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