Immigration Law Essays

Somali Refugees in Maine, Kendra Hutchinson

This article highlighted several relevant concerns regarding the United States' policy on refugees. First, the more general story of Somali refugees implicates the piecemeal manner in which the United States assists people fearing prosecution in other countries. Second, it shows up the inadequacies of the resettlement procedure as it is experienced by the refugees themselves and by the communities they settle in, whether through the resettlement process or through their own voluntary movements within the United States. It also suggests ways in which at least the latter two problems can be remedied.

Somalis were first given Temporary Protected Status in the United States in 1991. As of the end of 2002, nearly 15,000 refugees or asylum seekers were located in the European Union of the United States. Despite this large number, the fact remains that the United States has been inconsistent at best, schizophrenic at worst, in terms of its refugee policy. It is not set by any one agency, instead falling under the purview of four different government agencies: the Department of State, Department of Labor, Department of Health and Human Services, and now, Homeland Security (more specifically, the Department of Justice).

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The story of Somalis in Maine, "a wholly unlikely destination for these immigrants...[because] Maine is the whitest state in the country," highlights well how refugee populations experience the resettlement process themselves. This particular community of Somalis was first settled in Atlanta, Georgia, but found that urban life there did not fit their "traditional, tight-knit families" and values. So they merged their own Somali custom of sahan, apparently a sort of internally initiated migration, with the freedom they had with Temporary Protected Status, to find a new location that was more suitable for their cultures and needs. Choosing Maine because it was safe and relatively cheap, many moved north.

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The 1996 immigration reforms have allowed states to scale back state-funded assistance to both immigrants and refugees, and in addition limits some of the federal benefits and funds available to refugees. As the municipality of Lewiston [Maine] found, increasing adult and child ESL teachers, providing benefits to these new residents, and struggling to find ways to integrate them into the local workforce, already struggling itself since the collapse of industry in the entire region, strain the city's resources.... However, these facts do not militate towards accepting American residents' complaints about the extent of the provision of assistance to refugees. Instead, they point towards increasing federal funds available for the communities that refugees either choose to settle in, or are placed in to begin with.

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In conclusion, this article was interesting and topical for a number of reasons. It brought out the difficulty that the United States experiences in formulating a consistent foreign policy regarding global humanitarian crises and its proper role. It also showcased the resilience of refugee populations themselves in adapting to the changed conditions of their new countries. Finally, the story leads to a forceful argument that internal federal policy, funds, and programs for the resettlement process should be reconsidered, and perhaps strengthened. Otherwise, the stress put on these newest arrivals, as well as the established communities that they enter, may well prove disastrous.