This past Friday, Governor Paul LePage announced that Maine will be withdrawing from the federal government’s refugee resettlement program. While LePage can not actually prevent refugees from being resettled in this state, he can refuse to provide them with social services such as welfare and health care. He justified Maine’s withdrawal citing the burden that these refugees have on the state’s welfare system, the “lack” of vetting that they receive before arriving, and the case of one man who was radicalized after coming to Maine. To some, LePage’s withdrawal just signals his attention to the importance of ensuring Maine’s safety, security and economic stability. I would like to call out his actions for what they really are: racist and xenophobic bullshit.
LePage never cites any facts to back up his claims that refugees burden the state’s welfare system. Time and time again, welfare statistics have shown that in Lewiston, refugees are not draining the system dry (as LePage and Mayor MacDonald would like to have everyone think). In Lewiston, Somali use of welfare is proportionate to the percentage of the population that they represent and no one is drawing upon welfare benefits that they do not qualify for. The governor’s rhetoric about refugee use of welfare shows that he does not believe that “these kinds of people” should be receiving assistance from the government. But what about them disqualifies them from accessing these resources?
In addition, his assertion that refugees are not being properly screened before being sent to the United States is also racism masquerading as concern for safety. The process of refugee resettlement can take years. Within this time, there are countless interviews, security checks, and screenings before a person can be approved for resettlement in the United States. This is an extremely stringent process, which Paul LePage apparently does not think is comprehensive enough to vet African and Middle Eastern refugees. However, I doubt LePage would force a white European immigrant to undergo the same rigorous process before coming to Maine.
Finally, in discussion over closing Maine’s borders to refugees, LePage likes to cite the case of a man who lived in Maine but returned to the Middle East to fight with a terrorist organization there. Yes, there are a few cases of this happening. But, this is one man out of the hundreds of refugees who have come to Maine and become contributing members of their local communities. If one member of the refugee community commits a crime, the whole community is held in suspicion. However, a white man can commit an act of terrorism against a black church and we treat them as an outlier. This double standard is completely racist and Islamophobic. This does not even address the forces of social and cultural isolation (that we, the dominant culture cause) that could have caused this man to feel driven to join a terrorist group overseas.
LePage is perpetuating a racist rhetoric, which prevents people from seeing and accepting refugees as neighbors, friends, and contributors to the local community. LePage has no factual basis for rejecting the resettlement of refugees in this state. And maybe the governor has not noticed but, the aging population and departure of young people means that Maine is shrinking. Refusing refugees through political action and hateful rhetoric that turns many away spells out dark times for the future of the state. Beyond that, we have a duty to extend some basic human decency to the people who are trying to make a life for themselves and their families in this great state. Refugees are escaping horrors that most of us (including Paul LePage) will never have to experience. They are fleeing from famine, persecution, and war. And instead of opening our arms, and giving them the chance to live the kind of life that we are so fortunate to lead, Paul LePage is slamming the door shut.