Franklin County commissioners voted last week to refuse to take part in the federal refugee resettlement program. In the near future, the decision won’t make any difference.

But if Franklin County, and others in similar situations, continue down this path, they are getting in the way of the growth they say they need — and doing their constituents a great disservice.

The vote comes after President Trump issued an executive order last September allowing state and local government officials to decide whether to accept refugees, who are resettled in the U.S. through a formal program that identifies vulnerable people forced from their home countries who first undergo rigorous screening, both by the United Nations and the federal government.

It was the refugee resettlement program that brought thousands of Somalis to Maine starting in the early 2000s, many of whom ended up in Lewiston, reshaping and reinvigorating that city. It is different than the asylum process that has recently led hundreds of immigrants to come to Portland — refugees are selected, while asylum seekers come here on their own.

The president’s executive order has led some jurisdictions to take action, for a variety of reasons. The two Franklin County commissioners who voted against resettlement — the third was absent from the meeting — said the county does not have the resources to handle refugees. What assistance they can provide, the commissioners argued, should go to residents already there.

Piscataquis County officials passed a similar resolution, making similar arguments. Gov. Janet Mills, on the other hand, has said the state will welcome refugees.

Neither vote will have much of an impact on where refugees end up. County officials in Maine only speak for the unorganized territories within their borders; each city and town can make their own determination on refugees.

Besides, in an abdication of our moral duty as world leaders, the Trump administration has drastically cut back on the number of refugees admitted to the U.S., even as a refugee crisis persists in Africa and the Middle East.

And Catholic Charities, the organization that handles resettlement in Maine, told the Bangor Daily News in January that it has no plans to resettle anyone anywhere but Cumberland County. Previously, some refugees had been resettled in Kennebec and Androscoggin counties, but nowhere else.

So, no, refugees aren’t coming to rural Maine, not anytime soon. But rather than signal that they don’t want them there, county officials should be asking how they can get them there.

The population in Franklin County is stagnant, just as it is statewide. In Piscataquis County, it is dropping, just as it is in six other counties. The population is aging everywhere.

To grow – to survive even – Maine’s rural counties need people. Yes, they need to keep young families there, but they also need to attract new ones. Immigration is part of that.

The arrival of refugees poses challenges. But it has been proved to pay out over time.

Rather than outright rejecting them, local officials in Maine should work with Gov. Mills to figure out how they can mitigate the short-term costs of accepting refugees in order to reap the long-term benefits.

Neither the Franklin County commissioners nor their counterparts in Piscataquis County are wrong to worry about resident who are struggling. However, rejecting refugees will do nothing to help them. In fact, our experience shows the opposite.


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