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Two counties take positions on Gov. Mills’ refugee consent letter, Portland asks for help with ‘crisis’

Governor Janet Mills speaks while Senate President Troy Jackson, Senator Eloise Vitelli, Rep. Heidi Brooks, DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and others look on.

DOVER-FOXCROFT – While an executive order signed by President Donald Trump is winding through the federal court system challenged by refugee resettlement advocates, some of Maine’s counties have begun taking positions on the central component of the order.

That order, EO 13888 “Executive Order on Enhancing State and Local Involvement in Refugee Resettlement” requires both state level and county (or county equivalent) officials to consent to refugee resettlement in their area before groups that contract with the federal government are allowed to resettle refugees in that region.

Governor Janet Mills quietly sent a letter to the United States’ State Department on December 16, 2019 providing her consent for the State of Maine. Until recently, Maine’s sixteen counties, governed by elected county commissioners, had not taken action on the order.

Recent reports indicate that is changing.

In Penobscot County, the issue was brought to a recent meeting of the county commissioners, where State Rep. Larry Lockman spoke, saying that the state and county do not have the resources to properly care for our own people, let alone resettle refugees.

“Considering the fact that we have life-long Mainers languishing on Medicaid waitlists, that we have homeless veterans freezing to death in their sleeping bags, that we have low-income Maine seniors being evicted from under-funded nursing homes, can somebody please explain to me why it’s a good idea for us to subsidize the resettlement of poor people from foreign countries here?” asked Lockman.

Penobscot County commissioners tabled the matter after the discussion at their first meeting, then returned in a second meeting days later for another discussion.

According to Maine Public, commissioner Peter Baldacci said he supports refugee resettlement in Penobscot County, saying he believes refugees “make the pie bigger” in the local economy. The Maine Public report says that the Penobscot County Commissioners will wait until federal courts have rendered a final decision on the matter.

The Piscataquis Observer is reporting that the county commissioners of Piscataquis County Maine have voted to draft a letter stating that their county does not have the resources or housing to participate in the federal refugee resettlement program.

According to the Observer, commissioners said their county has little money to care for refugees and a lack of housing. The article quotes County Commissioner Chair James White expressing concern that some refugees arrive in Maine ill prepared for the weather and that dumping them in Piscataquis County would be “barbaric.”

At the other end of the state, however, Cumberland County’s commissioners have reportedly given their consent for refugee resettlement, along with the city of Portland, according to Maine Public. Catholic Charities tells Maine Public that they were advised to pause the consent process in those two instances.

Portland is, of course, the Maine city that last year struggled to house hundreds of immigrants that had crossed the southern border, many through illegal entry.

Some believe Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling exacerbated the crisis in Portland by calling for more and more immigrants to be sent to Portland despite the small city’s lack of resources relative to the influx the city was receiving. The crisis eventually led to the city housing hundreds of immigrants at the Portland Expo, which had to be cleared out in time for the Portland Red Claws, a minor league affiliate of the Boston Celtics to start their season.

Governor Janet Mills eventually performed a bail out of sorts for the city, modifying state welfare rules with emergency powers to send state dollars to Portland for the city’s totally depleted local welfare program. That program is the only one of the kind in the nation. Governor Mills also provided emergency housing funds for the immigrants in Portland, which led to public outcry that native Maine people, including homeless veterans, had not been offered the same services.

While Maine Public broke the news that Cumberland County and Portland had consented to refugee resettlement in a news article on January 21, WGME, a CBS affiliate based in Portland reported on January 24th that city officials are also saying they can’t keep up with asylum seekers that are currently arriving.

WGME says officials for Portland’s social services agencies are asking the federal government to modify how they send asylum seekers to Portland because the current “waves” of individuals arriving is “overwhelming.” One official cites a lack of affordable housing as a major problem. A letter sent from the officials says they are facing a “crisis situation.”

For now, Maine’s counties appear to be offering varied responses to the idea of providing consent to refugee resettlement. Even so the latest reports from Portland suggest that resettling large numbers of individuals into small regions in Maine is incredibly taxing on local services, no matter how enthusiastic local elected officials support resettlement programs.

Read President Trump’s executive order:

https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-enhancing-state-local-involvement-refugee-resettlement/

Maine Public covers Penobscot County Commissioner Meeting and Cumberland County decision:

https://www.mainepublic.org/post/penobscot-county-leaders-advocates-support-refugee-resettlement-commissioners-meeting

Piscataquis Observer covers Piscataquis County Commissioner Meeting:

https://observer-me.com/2020/01/22/commissioners-approve-pair-of-hires/

WGME report on “crisis situation” in Portland:

https://wgme.com/news/local/portland-urges-immigration-officials-to-fix-border-policies-regarding-asylum-seekers

Governor Janet Mills’ December letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo:

https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Maine-Initial-Resettlement-Consent-Letter.pdf

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