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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Refugee moratorium bill hits road block in Senate

CONCORD – A move to give any city or town the right to seek a one-year ban on accepting any more refugees appears headed to legislative death in the state Senate.

With no debate and little fanfare, the Senate Public and Municipal Affairs Committee recommended shipping this House-passed measure, HB 1405, which Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas has vigorously pursued, off to study.

Sen. Jack Barnes, R-Raymond, said the solution lies not in a state law but better communication among community service groups that care for these refugees and the host towns.

At a public hearing on the measure, former Clinton administration ambassador George Bruno of Manchester said there was reason to believe more talks would occur between Gatsas and groups like the International Institute of New Hampshire.

Barnes said there’s no evidence that has occurred.

“In my opinion, there is still a lack of communication,” he said. “That to me is garbage. It’s just plain wrong.”

But Barnes recommended that the panel study the issue, which in an election year is akin to killing the bill since it would have to start all over as a new bill in 2013.

The move cleared the panel, 3-1, with Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett, in opposition since his district includes the north end of Manchester.

“The mayor has tried to do something positive and been thwarted every step of the way,” Boutin said.

The full Senate is likely to endorse this recommendation when it meets again next Tuesday.

Gatsas said he was disappointed by the committee action, and it’s a blow to all 13 communities in the state that are authorized to receive these refugees.

Manchester takes the largest number of refugees in New Hampshire but per capita more end up in Concord and Laconia.

Gatsas said a one-year moratorium would give his city “some breathing space.”

“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.”

A spokesman for a new pro-refugees group, Granite Staters for Strong Communities, praised the Senate committee.

“We are pleased with the committee vote. They have recognized what we have now – this bill is not in the best interests of the people of New Hampshire,” said Scott Spradling, a lobbyist and spokesman for the group.

“We must not close the door to refugees who are fleeing war and persecution in their homeland to start a new safe life and reunite with their loved ones here,” Spradling said. “Passing a moratorium would send the wrong message to the world about our values.”

Representatives with the groups serving refugees testified that a moratorium would mean the state would not receive $2.5 million in federal grants for support services.

Despite a moratorium, newcomers could settle in a different community and then immediately move with no assistance.

Constitutional scholars also warned the Senate committee that the bill was legally flawed in singling out specific individuals, restricting the right of travel and trying to preempt a federal law that has supremacy.

Tennessee is the only state in the country that has adopted a similar moratorium at the option of a local community. Wyoming is the only state without a refugee resettlement agreement with the federal government.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or