Several hundred people gathered Friday in Portland to celebrate Maine’s growing refugee population at a time when 50 million people worldwide have been displaced by conflicts and aid for undocumented immigrants has sparked a political clash in Maine.
Speakers during the World Refugee Day event included Maine poet Richard Blanco, who was the inaugural poet during President Obama’s 2013 swearing-in ceremony, as well as Portland-area high school students Mariam Farid and Omar Raouf, whose families fled Iraq. Portland Mayor Michael Brennan also vowed to resist a LePage administration directive denying General Assistance to undocumented immigrants.
Blanco, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba when he was several weeks old, read from an inaugural poem, which he did not read on the steps of the Capitol in January 2013. Called “Mother Country,” the poem talks about how his mother left her homeland with just one suitcase full of important mementos – family photos, a piece of her old home and jar of Cuban soil – but then came to love her adopted home.
“It isn’t where you’re born that matters,” Blanco read, recalling his mother’s words to him. “It is where you choose to die – that’s your country.”
Created by the United Nations General Assembly, World Refugee Day aims to call attention to the plight of refugees worldwide each June 20. The U.N. estimated that in 2013 there were an 51 million refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons around the world – an increase of roughly 6 million people from 2012 as wars in Syria and Africa continued to drive people from their homes.
Nearly 2,300 refugees from 24 countries have established residency in Maine since 2000 through the federal government’s refugee resettlement program, with most of those landing in the Portland and Lewiston areas. Thousands more have sought asylum.
Immigrants who are seeking asylum in Maine are at the center of the latest welfare-reform debate as Republican Gov. Paul LePage plans to stop reimbursing communities for General Assistance paid to undocumented immigrants. Brennan vowed to fight that effort on Friday, noting that just days earlier the City Council had joined 41 other communities around the country in a “compassionate cities campaign.”
The policy change could affect as many as 600 people in Portland who rely on General Assistance for housing and food costs while their applications for asylum and federal work permits are pending.
“We will do everything we can to resist this directive from the governor and from the Department of [Health and] Human Services to make sure that people in the city of Portland are treated fairly, treated humanely and treated compassionately,” Brennan said to cheers from many of the roughly 200 spectators at Congress Square Plaza. “And I need every one of you here today to join me in that effort to make sure that we can continue to provide General Assistance to those people in the city of Portland that need it.”
The LePage administration has said that federal law prohibits the use of state funds for General Assistance for undocumented immigrants and that taxpayer dollars should be spent on legal residents in need.