Late last month, the U.S. State Department announced that it was doubling the amount of its contribution to refugee resettlement efforts from $900 to $1,800 per person. The increase is retroactive to Jan. 1. "While the U.S. government cannot guarantee the success of these refugees, it is capable of providing sufficient support to ensure refugees are able to get on their feet during their first weeks and months in the United States - and move quickly toward becoming independent, productive members of their new communities," the agency said.
Lutheran Social Services and the other agencies contracted to resettle refugees have lobbied for more money for years, and the extra money is a help. But despite the increase the State Department's statement is false.
Funding for the federal refugee resettlement program was never remotely enough to do the job, and it has been a decade since the last increase in its payment per refugee. The agencies that resettle refugees, and the volunteers and donors who assist them, make an enormous effort to help the newcomers assimilate in their new community. But assimilation is rarely easy. Most refugees spent years in camps in nations other than their home country. Many were the victims of hunger, war, horrific acts and imprisonment.
The 75,000 refugees from all over the world who are resettled in the United States make America a richer, stronger and more diverse nation. But in the short term, a period that the State Department measures in months and recipient communities in years, they are a cost that must be borne by the taxpayers in the communities chosen as resettlement sites.
Refugees are expected to find employment within a few months of their arrival, but the recession has made that impossible.
Locally, a number of employers are making an extra effort to hire refugees. Among them are Cole Gardens, the Pleasant View Retirement Community and Steve Duprey's hotel company, but unemployment remains the single biggest problem confronting the new arrivals.
Concord and Laconia became home to 285 refugees in 2008 and 284 last year and about 60 percent of them settled in Concord. That was about 150 more than expected. The bulk of the refugees have been Bhutanese, who have spent as much as 16 years in camps in Nepal as a result of ethnic cleansing in Bhutan, a small nation that borders India, China and Tibet. Refugees are settled in, and choose to migrate to, cities that already have a sizeable population of people from their home country. So Concord can expect to become home to hundreds more Bhutanese over the next few years. They will add to the smaller population of refugees from African nations, Eastern Europe and Iraq who have made Concord their home since Lutheran Services began its resettlement effort in 1998. Their presence is making Concord a much more diverse and interesting city.
Residents should welcome the newcomers, but the refugee influx isn't without costs. The impact on the city welfare budget has been small, as has the expense of food stamps and other federal programs. More challenging is the cost of educating refugee children, including some who have never been in a classroom.
Thanks to the state's tax structure, the added burden of public education is not shared by all the state's communities, only by taxpayers in the handful of cities that have been designated as resettlement sites. That's an inequity that could be remedied on the state level, but then too, it might rain money on Tuesday.
To address the problem, the budgets of two federal agencies, the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Department of Education, should include money to cushion the financial impact when cities are forced to cope with hundreds of refugee children whose educational needs are enormous. New Hampshire's congressional delegation should meet with local officials to discuss the problem and take steps to address it.