LEWISTON — Federal immigration and refugee resettlement policies will continue to be felt by local communities, federal officials told a roomful of city and social agency representatives Wednesday.
Eskinder Negash, director of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, and Larry Bartlett, director of the Office of Refugee Admissions, discussed immigration policies at Lewiston City Hall.
It was part of a two-day trip through Maine, one of many similar meetings held around the country throughout the year. A similar meeting was held Tuesday in Portland.
Immigration policy is shaped by two factors: a desire to help less fortunate people and fiscal realities at home.
"There is no greater responsibility than that (which) we get from community leaders to make sure refugees get the support they deserve," Bartlett said. "But there are many pressures from the humanitarian side of our country to grow this program."
The United States brought in about 58,000 refugees in 2012 and expects to bring in about 70,000 this year. Most are settled in large states such as Texas, California and New York. Maine took in about 197 people, less than half of 1 percent of the total.
Many who come are in desperate situations and need substantial help to get settled.
"We don't bring people here who are necessarily the most employable, the most educated or the most fortunate," Bartlett said. "Those people, if they want to come to the United States, they have other ways to come here."
Cities such as Lewiston find themselves in a tough place with little federal support when refugees begin calling it home.
"In some ways, we have a challenging program and you feel the effects on a community level, and we have to thank you for that," Bartlett said. "We don't have all the answers and that's why we have these discussions to hear what the problems are."
For local officials, the biggest problem is a lack of federal aid for education, English language and other resettlement programs.
"We have received assistance, in some programs," Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau said. "We need more. We have a population we like to refer to as our 'new Mainers.' There's no question the significant majority want to work, want to participate in the American Dream. There is ample evidence for that. But we don't have the resources."
Most of the refugees in Maine are secondary immigrants, people who were settled in one state but chose to move here because of concerns about crime or standards of living.
Bartlett said his office, part of the State Department, has no programs designed to help at the local level. Negash, whose office is part of the federal Health and Human Services agency, said there is federal help, but it's limited.
"The money goes to the state," Negash said. "The money always goes to the state, and the state has all the discretion it needs to use the money."
U.S. refugee policy encourages newcomers to get into the workplace quickly, taking any job they can find. It may mean that immigrants who worked in highly trained jobs in their home country have to accept menial jobs in the U.S. if they don't speak English.
"The model this country has chosen is one of early self-sufficiency," Bartlett said. "The problem is that it does not recognize people's skills very well, but it is hoped that as people get into the workplace and develop language skills, they can use it as a springboard to get back close to the place they were professionally."
Those funding and policy priorities are decided by Congress, the officials said.
"This is the way this country has designed this program to work," Bartlett said. "We know it works, but it's not perfect and we accept criticism willingly."