Gov. Paul LePage notified President Obama on Friday that Maine will no longer administer the federal government’s refugee resettlement program, a decision wrapped up in the political debate over immigration.

LePage’s action is unlikely to stop the placement in Maine of refugees fleeing Syria or other war-torn nations, because the federal government – not states – is responsible for immigration policy.

In a letter sent Friday to Obama, LePage cited concerns about the adequacy of vetting of refugees coming from Syria and other countries, and what he said is the burden placed on the state’s welfare system by refugees. A vocal opponent of Obama administration plans to resettle Syrian refugees in the U.S., LePage seized on the case of an Iranian refugee who became radicalized after settling in Maine and was killed while fighting with the Islamic State in Lebanon last year.

“I have lost confidence in the federal government’s ability to safely and responsibly run the refugee program and no longer want the state of Maine associated with that shortcoming,” LePage wrote. “The federal vetting system has proven wholly inadequate, as evidenced by the revelation that a refugee living in Freeport, Maine, returned to Syria and died fighting for the ISIS terrorist organization.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement was unable to respond to questions about LePage’s letter Friday night.

Maine has received thousands of refugees from countries such as Somalia, Sudan and Iraq in recent decades through the federal resettlement program, which subjects applicants to extensive screening and interviews. Maine has resettled 39 Syrian refugees over the past year or two and was slated to receive about 525 refugees from all countries this year, according to Catholic Charities Maine, which is the resettlement agency in Maine.


But Obama’s plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees – out of the millions displaced by the civil war in that country – has become a political lightning rod, especially among Republican governors, members of Congress and presidential nominee Donald Trump.

LePage was among more than 30 governors who voiced concerns about Obama’s Syrian refugee plans in November 2015 after terrorists killed more than 100 people in Paris. Led by Trump, those critics have continued to hammer the issue despite assurances from federal officials and refugee advocates that the vetting process – which often takes one to two years – thoroughly screens those hoping to immigrate to the U.S.

It is unclear what impact, if any, the governor’s actions would have on refugee resettlement in Maine, which is carried out by the federal government in conjunction with Catholic Charities Maine.

Courts have consistently ruled that the federal government is responsible for refugees and immigration. In June, a federal judge rejected Texas’ attempts to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees. And last month, a federal appeals court blocked Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, from interfering with the disbursement of federal funds to refugees in an attempt to halt Syrian refugees.

Instead, LePage appears to be invoking a federal rule that allows states to withdraw from administering welfare, health and social services programs to refugees. Those rules say that in the event of a withdrawal, the federal government can designate another entity to administer the program.

Judy Katzel, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities Maine, said her organization was surprised by LePage’s letter, which she learned about through the media.


“We’ve had a very good working relationship with the state over many years with respect to the refugee resettlement program and we were disappointed that we weren’t contacted prior to (the governor) sending out such a statement,” Katzel said. She said it was unclear how the process will unfold if Maine does stop administering the programs and federal funding for refugees.

“This is new territory for us at Catholic Charities, so we don’t know what that might look like or what those options might be,” Katzel said.

To support his concerns about the vetting process, LePage cited the case of an Iranian refugee in Maine who was killed while fighting for the Islamic State. Adnan Fazeli, 38, appears to have been radicalized while living in the U.S., and later went to Turkey to join the militant group.

“Whether the federal government grants refugee status to a current terrorist or to somebody who is susceptible to radicalization by virtue of their having come from a nation that either supports or is overcome by terrorism, it is a failure to properly vet entrants and it puts American lives at risk,” LePage wrote.

But Katzel said her organization has “complete confidence” in the vetting process, which she called “one of the most stringent vetting processes for anyone coming into this country.” She also said the refugees coming to Maine from Syria and other countries are fleeing murder, torture, persecution and extreme violence.

“These are people who are looking for peace,” Katzel said. “What we see of the refugees arriving here is they are grateful and they want to live in peace as American citizens and contribute to our communities.”


LePage also repeated controversial statements about immigrants – whether refugees, asylum seekers or “illegals,” as he calls them – and Maine’s welfare system.

“Furthermore, Maine’s social services, schools, infrastructure and other resources are being burdened by this unchecked influx of refugees on top of the countless other immigrants crossing our borders and flouting our laws with impunity,” LePage wrote. “We have also found that welfare fraud is especially prevalent within the refugee community.”

LePage is correct that asylum seekers – who are distinct from federally resettled refugees and undergo a different immigration process – have put a financial strain on welfare programs in Portland and other cities in recent years. That is because federal law prohibits asylum seekers from working for at least six months after they apply for asylum. LePage has sought to cut off asylum seekers from state-funded General Assistance and other benefits.

The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. has actually stabilized at roughly 11 million, according to the Pew Research Center. And while illegal border crossings are up this year, those figures rise and fall with economic conditions in the U.S. and Mexico.

LePage’s communication’s office did not respond to a request for specifics or data to support the governor’s claim that welfare fraud is “prevalent” in Maine’s refugee community. The most recent statistics from the state suggest otherwise.

In 2015, fraud investigators with the Department of Health and Human Services referred 105 cases to the Attorney General’s Office for prosecution. All 36 people who were subsequently convicted and ordered to pay restitution were U.S. citizens.


The LePage administration recently called attention to a federal investigation into whether the owner of the Ahram Halal Market in Portland was perpetrating a cash-back scheme using food stamp benefits. The owner, Ali Daham, has not been charged and has maintained his innocence through his attorney.

Speaking Friday night on the conservative radio show hosted by Howie Carr, LePage said he is skeptical that the federal government will prosecute Daham. He also pledged to send any “illegal” immigrants packing from Maine.

“If we find any undocumented people in the state of Maine, which I cannot put in jail, I am going to buy them a bus ticket, I am going to buy them a lobster roll … and I am going to send them to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” LePage said with a laugh.


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