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How Refugees Get Settled in Maine

Troy R. Bennett
Bangor Daily News
Burundian refugees Audrey Iradukunda, 20, (left) and Chanelle Irakoze, 19, talk with friends in Portland on June 20.

By Matthew Stone, Bangor Daily News

Refugees from Syria have dominated the news this week following terrorist attacks in Paris and declarations by more than half the nation's governors that they won't allow Syrian refugees to settle in their states (even though they have no power to stop resettlement).

Hundreds of refugees have made their way to Maine in recent years from 15 countries, most commonly from Iraq and Somalia. Between Oct. 1, 2011, and Sept. 30, 2014, 941 refugees settled in Maine, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Here's how they got here.

In pursuit of protection

Asylum seekers and refugees are both pursuing protected status in a new country. The difference? Asylum seekers have already landed in their destination country before they pursue protection. Refugees start their pursuit for protected status from abroad, where they register as refugees, most commonly with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

After registration, the agency refers refugees to their receiving countries, often based on refugees' requests. Since 2013, that agency has referred more than 22,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S.

Applications and screening

Once it receives referrals, the U.S. relies on nine voluntary national agencies to help refugees prepare their resettlement applications. The International Organization for Migration often collects applicants' fingerprints, performing much of the groundwork for the U.S. government in advance of the security check.

The security check involves multiple government agencies: the State Department, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services within the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and the National Counterterrorism Center.

"They're checking so many different databases," said Beth Stickney, a Maine lawyer who founded the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and has recently worked with refugees who landed in Italy. "They're checking every conceivable database they can check."

This check can be complicated, especially since refugees commonly don't know their precise birth dates. Many of them are entered as Jan. 1, Stickney said, meaning one name can bring up records for many people. Authorities have to investigate to confirm the records belong to the person applying for resettlement, a process that can further extend the security check.

Government officials have refined the security screening over time. After 9/11, the U.S. suspended refugee resettlement and resumed it only after adding new security protocols. Officials reviewed security protocols again five years ago, and they've added a new layer of review for applications from Syria, Lavinia Limon, president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants — one of the nine U.S. resettlement agencies — told The Daily Signal. (The government keeps many of the screening details secret for security purposes.)

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service also reviews each application and conducts in-person interviews with those who clear the security check. According to the State Department, the entire process — which also includes a health screening before refugees depart for the U.S. — can take 18-24 months.

Once in the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security follows up with refugees when they apply for green cards, often a year after their arrival.

Fanning out across the country

The United States' nine resettlement agencies — which also include the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — that help refugees prepare their applications rely on their 244 affiliates in 42 states to place admitted refugees. The agencies often place refugees with family members if they already have relatives in the U.S., Stickney said.

If they don't, they try to place refugees where help will be available (English classes, health care, social services) and where others of the same nationality or who speak the same language are already living.

Catholic Charities of Maine, a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops affiliate, is Maine's sole refugee resettlement agency. Each year, the organization determines Maine's capacity for new refugees and informs the USCCB, which assigns refugees under its purview to its affiliates in different states.

"Sometimes, it's associated with if you have a particular ethnic group already settled in your state," said Bonnie Bagley, associate director of Catholic Charities of Maine. "Here in Maine, we have resettled Iraqis. It is likely that if Iraqis are part of that large refugee pool that we will resettle Iraqis."

(Some 906 Iraqis have resettled in Maine since 2006, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.)

When Catholic Charities received referrals to resettle French-speaking refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bagley said, the organization decided on Lewiston because of its French-speaking heritage.

"Our job is then to meet them at the airport and then to ensure that we can meet their immediate, basic needs of housing, food, clothing, getting kids enrolled in school, signing adults up for English as a Second Language," Bagley said. Catholic Charities also sees that refugees, who are authorized to work the moment they arrive in the U.S., enroll in job skills training.

When refugees arrive in Maine or any other state, they don't necessarily stay put. In federal fiscal year 2012 (Oct. 1, 2011-Sept. 30, 2012), 161 refugees moved to Maine from other states and 63 left.

Syrians in Maine

According to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, two Syrian refugees arrived in Maine in federal fiscal year 2014 (between Oct. 1, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2014). Catholic Charities doesn't expect to resettle others for at least another year due to the length of the screening process.

Refugees are eligible for cash and medical assistance for eight months from their date of arrival. They receive health care through state Medicaid programs, but it's entirely federally funded. Maine received nearly $2 million from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement in the last fiscal year to pay for those services, according to DHHS.

While most Maine refugees end up in the Portland and Lewiston areas, Bagley said Catholic Charities sometimes hears from communities and organizations elsewhere in Maine willing to help out. Catholic Charities then works with those groups to prepare them to support refugees — sometimes one or two families or maybe a handful.

"We want to be open to Maine being a welcoming state," Bagley said. "Where are there communities that might have employment, that might have housing, that might be ready to expand their base?"

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.