Mauwa Muyenga (far right) and Safi Paulo (second from right) watch as Jordan Shabani (far left) learns how to use a piece of nursing home safety equipment designed to help a fallen resident safely into a nearby chair from coworker Katherine Page and Resident Care Director Tara Sabins (being lifted) at the Crawford Commons nursing home in Union. Just weeks after the Kaluta family arrived in America, Catholic Charities, the agency designated by the State Department to resettle refugees in Maine, moved the family to the midcoast town of Thomaston, population 2,781. Credit: Micky Bedell

Penobscot County’s three commissioners on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution supporting refugee resettlement in the county after declining to act on the issue at a meeting a week ago.

The resolution was a response to a September 2019 executive order from President Donald Trump changing the country’s refugee resettlement policy to not settle refugees anywhere a state or local government hasn’t given its consent. Of the 50 states, only Texas’ governor so far has actively rejected refugee resettlement.

While the commissioners expressed their support for resettling refugees in the county, their resolution is of little practical consequence.

The commissioners only have control over the county’s unorganized territories, where about 1,100 people live, according to 2010 census data. Elected officials in municipalities in the county, including those in its largest city of Bangor, would have to make separate decisions about refugee resettlement.

In addition, Catholic Charities of Maine, the only organization in the state allowed by the federal government to resettle refugees, has no plans to resettle refugees in Penobscot County, according to Judy Katzel, chief communications and development officer for Catholic Charities.

The organization now resettles refugees only in Cumberland County. Previously, it has also helped people resettled in Kennebec and Androscoggin counties, she said.

The organization has no plans to move into other counties at this time but appreciates county officials’ support, she said.

“We are thrilled the county has chosen to open its doors to refugees and want to thank the community for its support,” Katzel said. “It’s important because it makes a statement that individuals fleeing violence have a right to safety and security in new communities.”

The Trump administration has dramatically limited the number of refugees allowed to enter the country, making settlement in Penobscot County even less likely.

Since Oct. 1, Catholic Charities has resettled just 14 people in Maine, Katzel said. The organization expects it will resettle about 100 refugees by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. Between 2011 and 2014, when the U.S. was accepting more refugees, 941 were resettled in Maine.

Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Bradley, brought the issue of the county’s consent for refugee resettlement to commissioners on Jan. 14. He asked that they oppose refugee resettlement.

Last week, Bangor City Councilor Angela Okafor, Bangor School Committee member Marwa Hassanien and others urged commissioners to pass a resolution in support of resettlement.

However, commissioners decided to table the matter while awaiting an appellate decision on a federal judge’s ruling earlier this month blocking Trump’s executive order.

Commission Chairman Peter Baldacci of Bangor said Tuesday after the resolution was passed that the issue was taken off the table after he and fellow Commissioners Laura Sanborn of Alton and Andre Cushing of Newport heard from constituents about the issue.

“They felt that we needed to clearly state that our county welcomes people escaping war, persecution and abuse,” he said. “Also, we received correspondence from Catholic Charities of Maine and Beth Stickney of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition, who made the case that we shouldn’t wait for the legal proceedings to be completed [and] that it was important to show our support for the effort to find homes for refugees.”

Last week, commissioners in neighboring Piscataquis County decided the rural county of about 17,000 residents did not have the resources to support refugees, according to the Piscataquis Observer.

Commissioners there instructed County Manager Michael Williams to draft a letter saying the region does not have the resources, such as adequate housing and social services, to allow refugees to settle in the county.