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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Refugees testify against bill putting moratorium on resettlement program

CONCORD – Refugees to New Hampshire from Bhutan, Somalia and Sudan warned a proposed moratorium on newcomers would trap family members in wartorn homelands.

Mukhtar Idhow was in a Somalia refugee camp for two decades before coming to New Hampshire nine years ago. He said he worried about his mother and a brother who are still in Somalia.

Idhow has started the nonprofit Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success and two brothers own and run convenience stores.

“I was split from my own mother. I did not want to miss my opportunity to come to New Hampshire and change my life,” Idhow told the Senate Public and Municipal Affairs Committee on Tuesday. “I think I can support my mother now.”

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas said his city is drowning in demands for services, being by far the largest refugee resettlement city in the state with 200 or more coming every year.

“Let us catch our breath. Let me get a job so I can provide for an opportunity before another one comes,” Gatsas said.

Per capita, Concord and Laconia take in more refugees than Manchester.

Gatsas faults both the federal resettlement agency and local International Institute of New England and New Hampshire for failing to notify city officials before a refugee arrives.

“I never know when anybody is coming to the city of Manchester. Not that I should, but I think communication is something that would help the situation,” said Gatsas, a former president of the state Senate. “We have been talking about communication for the past 18 months, and it has been falling on deaf ears.”

William Gillett, chairman of the board for the International Institute of New England, said there have been only 60 refugees relocated in Manchester in 2012.

A moratorium would mean the state would lose the $2.5 million in federal grants for support services.

Newcomers could arrive in a different state and then choose to move here with no assistance, he said.

“They are the new Americans who come here, and we are privileged to be able to support them and we benefit tremendously by having their diversity,” Gillett said.

Committee Chairman Jack Barnes, R-Raymond, urged speakers on both sides to foster more give and take.

“Wouldn’t that be a good idea, though, to tell the governing agency?” Barnes asked Gillett. “The lack of communication seems to be a burr under some people’s saddle.”

Gillett said improving ties with local officials is on his group’s agenda.

Tennessee is the only state in the country that adopted a similar moratorium in 2011, but still giving the option to local communities to accept refugees. Wyoming is the only state without a refugee resettlement agreement with the federal government.

Albert Scherr, professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, said the bill, HB 1405, would be unconstitutional on three grounds: discrimination against a distinct group of people; denial of the right of travel; and action preempted by the federal government.

“This particular mechanism to remedy that situation just happens to be unconstitutional,” Scherr said.

Sarah Mattson with New Hampshire Legal Assistance also claimed a moratorium would violate the federal Fair Housing Act.

“In summary, the goal of the Fair Housing Act is to promote housing opportunity for all regardless of preconceived notions about a particular protected class,” Mattson said in her written testimony. “Legislation that purports to allow municipalities to shut down access to housing for refugees flatly contradicts this important goal.”

A House committee recommended, 15-1, that the bill be killed. Last month, the House overturned that finding and passed it, 192-109.

Dr. Sarah Alier formed the Southern Sudan Community of New Hampshire after coming here from Somalian refugee camps.

“I am the one who came from the war; the war that was there for 50 years. Do you care because of me? Do you weep because of me? Do you take actions because of me?” Alier asked.

Barnes said the committee may make a recommendation on the bill next week.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or