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House passes refugee bill

Last modified: 3/16/2012 12:00:00 AM
The House voted yesterday 190-109 to allow local communities to bar new refugees from settling within their borders for one year, with some lawmakers praising the bill as local control and others condemning it as racism.

The floor debate yesterday focused on the frustration of Manchester officials, who have complained that a flood of non-English speaking refugees has lowered their school test scores and burdened city welfare services.

"This bill has nothing to do with people's skin color," said Republican Rep. Phil Greazzo, who is also a Manchester alderman. "This has nothing to do with people wanting to keep refugees out of our state," he said. "We just want some say in what happens. At some point you become overburdened and you can't support them."

A House committee had recommended killing the bill, 15-1. And an official with one of the state's main refugee resettlement services said refugee advocates would challenge the moratorium in court should it pass the Senate and get the governor's approval.

"They can pass any bill they want," said Bob Kay, public policy director for Lutheran Social Services of New England. He then quoted the legal opinion of a constitutional lawyer who testified before the House committee that recommended rejecting the bill.

"He said this is unconstitutional," Kay said. "You cannot pass legislation that says a group of people legally in the United States cannot move where they want to. Imagine if Gov. Lynch said, 'Sorry, we can't take any more poor people.' "

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas has been vocal in his complaints with federal and state refugee resettlement officials and the nonprofit agencies like Lutheran Social Services that help refugees once they arrive. Echoing those complaints, Greazzo and other lawmakers told the House yesterday that state and local refugee officials have declined to adequately include local officials in deciding where to resettle refugees and how many refugees one city can handle.

"The local body should be able to determine capacity," said Rep. Laurie Pettengill, a Bartlett Republican. "If sufficient resources are not available, this bill allows for a one-year moratorium. This allows (local officials) to provide for citizens and refugees. This is a local control bill."

Messages left with the state Department of Health and Human Services, where the state's refugee coordinator works, were not returned yesterday. Kay said his organization does work with local officials. He also said other communities that have received refugees have not raised the complaints Manchester has.

"The school performance problems and the cost of city services testimony are not the fault of refugees, which are very small part of the population and actually do quite well and are funded by the federal government," Kay said.

The federal government does provide communities some money, and nonprofits also assist refugees during their first six to eight months, lawmakers said yesterday. But the assistance does not continue if the refugee fails to find a job, they said.

Other representatives spoke as passionately against the moratorium.

"We have never taken this step when (refugees) were from European countries," said Rep. Peter Bolster, an Alton Republican. "We are taking it now when they are from Burundi. Think about what you are saying to the rest of the country when you take this action and the majority of people are coming from Africa and you did nothing when the majority of people were coming from Europe."

Rep. Kris Roberts, a Keene Democrat, acknowledged that Manchester has hosted more refugees than other communities in New Hampshire. But he said that 2009 research showed that 84 percent of refugees that had come to New Hampshire in recent years had found jobs paying about $8.50 an hour.

"You are making an emotional decision," Roberts said. "We are again going to make New Hampshire an embarrassment in the national news."

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or atimmins@cmonitor.com.)


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