PORTLAND – The Center for Preventing Hate is winding down its operations, but its last major study is just getting under way.

The New Migration Project will be conducting interviews and focus groups in Portland, Lewiston-Auburn and Washington County to determine whether immigrants and migrants in those communities are suffering discrimination, slurs or hate crimes.

Steve Wessler, the center’s executive director, said the communities are part of a broader effort to reduce bias against refugees and immigrants under a two-year grant from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, with additional funding from the Broadreach Foundation.

The center has done similar assessments in Manchester, N.H.; Boise, Idaho; Lincoln, Neb.; and Fort Wayne, Ind.

The collection of communities is no accident, Wessler said.

He said the effects of a large influx of immigrants or refugees are mitigated by the size of a big city. But in smaller cities, a new group of residents is more apparent and more likely to have an impact.

“When communities change really quickly, one should expect that there will be some amount of conflict,” Wessler said.

Wessler said he doesn’t want to prejudge the assessment, but noted that problems involving refugee and immigrant communities diminish over time, so it would be likely that Portland might have fewer cases of employment discrimination or hateful speech than the other communities.

He also noted that Milbridge, in Washington County, has had a significant Latino population for some time.

Arian Giantris, director of refugee and immigration services for Catholic Charities Maine, said she also sees issues involving immigrants and refugees easing over time.

She said that’s particularly true with employers.

When a new group of immigrants or refugees arrives, many employers are unsure whether they can hire them, even though most can go to work immediately, she said.

“It may not be immigration per se (that’s the issue), but a lack of knowledge” by employers of the legal status of the immigrants and refugees, she said. “It can be hard to navigate that.”

She said her agency doesn’t get involved in investigating hate crimes because it turns those cases over to police, but she said her sense is there aren’t many, particularly in Portland.

America has gone through waves of immigration by particular groups, from the Irish in the mid-1800s to Eastern Europeans in the early part of the 20th century.

While most immigrant groups have suffered some discrimination, Wessler said, the latest group of African and Asian immigrants and refugees have the added elements of racial and religious distinction.

When Irish, Polish and Italian immigrants arrived, they were able to blend in more easily in America, which was predominantly white and of Western European heritage 100 or 150 years ago. But today’s immigrants and refugees, such as Somali Muslims, can be targeted for racial and religious reasons, not just because of an anti-immigrant bias, Wessler said.

“You can’t leave that out of the discussion, because the groups that are seen as immigrants are either African, Hispanic or Asian,” he said.

Wessler said the center plans to follow up its assessment with workshops aimed at service providers and employers to provide tips on how to short-circuit slurs and stereotyping before they turn into violence and hate crimes.

He said what often begins with name-calling can quickly escalate into a violent incident, but the workshops will offer suggestions on how to spot a problem and what to say to keep it from going further.

The center is likely to close down late this summer.

Wessler has decided to turn to teaching and writing, and the center’s board decided it would be difficult to replace him, particularly during a time when fundraising has become difficult.

Wessler said he hopes that some other groups in Maine may be able to carry on some of the work that the center has done and continue to offer the workshops.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]