Obama’s refugee resettlement plan could stir battle with states

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The Obama administration's pledge to absorb thousands more Syrian and other refugees could run headlong into resistance from state and local officials worried about whether their communities can handle the influx.

Federal officials announced last month they plan to take in at least 10,000 refugees from Syria over the next year, and a total of 100,000 refugees from around the world by 2017 -- up from 70,000.

While Republicans on Capitol Hill have raised concerns about whether refugees from Syria will be adequately screened for terror ties, local officials are worried simply about whether they have the resources to take them.

"It's a fiscal issue," said Peter Steele, a spokesman for Maine Gov. Paul LePage. "You can only pay for what you can afford, and those funds should be going to the most needy citizens in our state."

Refugees granted entrance to America often move around the country, tapping services and funds from local communities as they go. They get benefits ranging from food stamps to traditional welfare to housing to language classes. Refugees also receive over $1,800 per person in cash once in the U.S. (of which $750 goes to a resettlement agency contractor).

LePage has been reforming the welfare system in his state by actually enforcing standards set by law for those seeking benefits.

Other states are taking a more direct stance on refugees.

In Georgia, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal became the first governor to request the State Department keep his state's refugee numbers "static," at about 2,500 people.

And one example of a city practically maxed out by the influx of refugees and immigrants is Amarillo, Texas -- the top state for refugee resettlement. City officials say services are "busting at the seams." The city is fielding 911 calls in 36 different languages, supplying language classes in schools and having interpreters on call for the police and court system while facing ongoing challenges between "what's legal here and what's legal there," a city official said.

Now the city has been granted so-called family-reunification-only status for 2015 and 2016, after pleading their case to the Texas Health and Human Services department that administers refugee aid.

The Obama administration, in seeking to absorb more refugees, is responding to a bipartisan and international call to address the global refugee crisis. The tide of people fleeing the Syrian civil war and other conflicts first washed into surrounding Middle Eastern countries, and now is flowing into Europe, leading to calls for the United States to do more to help.

"So many families need help right now; they don't have time," President Obama told the U.N. General Assembly last week. "And that's why the United States is increasing the number of refugees who we welcome within our borders."

But pushback from the states could pose practical challenges.

According to a 1980 law, states can opt out of the program and need to be consulted in the process. However, Don Barnett, a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, describes refugee resettlement as a "secretive" and lucrative business for "non-profits" who operate with little coordination with state and local communities.

"In every encounter I've had with resettlement representatives, they will say if the locality doesn't want it, we won't resettle them -- but this hasn't been tested," Barnett said.

Concern about the funding burden falling on local governments is hardly new.

The 1981 Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy noted, "Many state and local officials are concerned that the costs of resettlement assistance will continue beyond the period of federal reimbursement and that the burden of providing services will then fall upon their governments."

"There is a complete cost shift to the states," Barnett said.

Indeed, federal funding, extended for 36 months at the beginning of the program, dropped to the current eight-month period by 1991. The Heritage Foundation estimates the total lifetime cost of government benefits at $6.5 billion per 10,000 refugees.

An expanding number of mayors, some Democrat, also are attempting to fend off calls for more refugee resettlement -- citing mounting costs that, in the words of Springfield, Mass., Mayor Domenic Sarno, are piling "poverty on top of poverty."

Texas Republican Rep. Brian Babin says the way the program operates infringes on state rights.

"The federal government and third-party contractors make the decisions related to the resettlement of these individuals while leaving states and its local citizens in the dark," said Babin, who is seeking a hold on the program until a cost analysis can be conducted by the Government Accountability Office in his proposed Resettlement Accountability National Security Act.

Though states are not technically required to participate, when a state opts out, the State Department can just hire a federal contractor to run it. This happened in Tennessee; after the state left the program in 2008, Catholic Charities was hired by the federal refugee resettlement agency to administer the program, and the Medicaid rolls doubled.

Tennessee state Rep. John Ragan has filed legislation calling for transparency in the process.

"The federal government continues to send more immigrants to Tennessee without adequate funding," Ragan said. "This situation amounts to an unfunded federal mandate that has everyday Tennesseans footing the bill."

In recent weeks, meetings have been held in Spartanburg, S.C. and Twin Falls, Idaho, where hundreds of citizens attended a forum to discuss the impending arrival of Syrian refugees.

"I asked officials why it was good public policy to resettle individuals into a community divided on the issue," Idaho state Rep. Stephen Hartgen said.