Gov. Paul LePage vowed to scrutinize public assistance benefits for immigrants Wednesday in the wake of revelations that an Iranian refugee living in Freeport who was receiving benefits ended up fighting for the Islamic State and dying in battle in Lebanon.

However, the state doesn’t have the authority to deny federal welfare benefits to refugees, according to an advocate who lobbies on behalf of social safety net policies. While state agencies oversee many federal welfare programs, the states must follow federal rules when administering the programs.

In an interview with the Boston Herald published Wednesday, LePage said the state should review welfare benefits granted to refugees, after Maine officials told the newspaper that Adnan Fazeli was on food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

It was unclear from the Boston Herald interview what steps the LePage administration could take to clamp down on welfare benefits for refugees and how those moves would affect applicants for assistance.

The names of welfare recipients are also confidential, and the Herald report did not disclose who authorized the release of information about the Fazeli family’s participation in assistance programs to the public.

The newspaper quoted Maine officials as saying Fazeli received benefits for four years until 2013, when he left for Turkey. Fazeli, according to court documents obtained by the Press Herald on Monday, was “self-radicalized” by watching Islamic State videos while he lived in Freeport with his wife and children. Fazeli, 38, died in January 2015 while fighting in Lebanon. Fazeli fled Iran because he faced arrest as a dissident, arriving in Philadelphia in 2008 before his family moved to Maine in 2009, according to court documents unsealed this week.


LePage told the Boston Herald that it was “very embarrassing” for Maine to have Fazeli fall through the cracks, and he questioned whether the immigrants should be eligible for welfare.

“I’m having (the Maine Department of Health and Human Services) look at our welfare rolls closer,” LePage said. “All the other states should look at the eligibility, too.”

Separately, LePage has sharply criticized the Obama administration’s immigration policies, saying they are an “utter failure and continue to jeopardize the safety of millions of Americans.” Refugees must undergo rigorous screening, first by the United Nations and then by the U.S. State Department, a process that can take years and involve background checks and in-person interviews.

DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards said the agency is examining whether immigrants are committing welfare fraud.

“Along with hundreds of other welfare fraud cases, the department’s welfare fraud unit has many active investigations involving immigrants who benefit from Maine’s welfare programs. These ongoing investigations of potential criminal activity include partnerships with federal agencies and often extend beyond welfare fraud,” Edwards wrote in an email to the Press Herald. “The governor has asked the department for a complete review and evaluation of any refugee related programs administered by Maine to determine whether the state should continue participating.”

Edwards did not respond to follow-up questions from the Press Herald asking why immigrants could be under extra scrutiny by the state.


But Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, an Augusta-based progressive activist group, said Maine must provide public assistance benefits to refugees, who are in the United States legally after fleeing war-torn countries where they were in danger. The process of obtaining official refugee status is lengthy, and those who have gone through the steps are legally entitled to such benefits, including Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income and Refugee Cash Assistance, she said.

“The states don’t have the leeway, and they are required to support refugees,” Merrill said. “Nothing that the governor has proposed would have affected this individual or the benefits for anyone with refugee status.”

Merrill said the public assistance programs help refugees get on their feet while adjusting to life in the United States. There are about 12,000 African immigrants and 5,000 Iraqi immigrants in Maine, according to immigration advocates, with most settling in Portland, Lewiston and Westbrook. Many of the immigrants were at one point refugees or asylum seekers.

Rilwan Osman, executive director of Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services, a nonprofit with offices in Lewiston and Portland that helps settle refugees, said he wasn’t familiar with Fazeli’s case, but that in general refugees are contributing to society in Maine.

“The refugees are coming here to be safe, and they are hard-working individuals, often working two jobs,” Osman said. “That (Fazeli) case does not represent the refugee communities. Every community, no matter what it is, has one bad apple.”

Osman said he fled Somalia in 2004, and obtained refugee status, settling in Auburn. He said he is now a U.S. citizen.


“We all left our countries for a reason,” Osman said. “People are here trying to support their families and live their lives.”

The LePage administration has been fighting with the Legislature on whether to use state dollars to help asylum seekers. People seeking asylum are those who are legally in the country but waiting to see whether the federal government will grant them refugee status. Unlike refugees who are eligible for federal assistance, programs to help asylum seekers are typically funded by the state.

The administration has proposed eliminating state-funded food stamps and welfare for asylum seekers, but the Legislature did not approve the measure.

“Unfortunately, despite some progress, the Legislature continues to deny these common sense reforms,” Edwards wrote.

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