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Massachusetts Mayor Doesn't Want More Somali Refugees in His Town

Tuesday, June 24, 2014
By Jordan Larson

The mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts, has called on the US State Department to stop the relocation of Somali refugees to his city, adding him to the list of mayors in the country who have rebuked the government's resettlement program in recent years.

Citing pressure on already strained city services, Mayor Domenic Sarno wrote a letter to state officials asking to halt plans to resettle Somali refugees in Springfield. The move comes after Sarno learned about plans to relocate 70 more Somalis to the city in the next year, adding to about 380 refugees from the African country already living there.

In the letter, addressed to US Representative Richard E. Neal, with copies sent to US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, as well as Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, the mayor asked that the resettlements be suspended "until the City is able to adequately address the impact of further refugee placement, and, in the interest of fairness to all involved, until other communities accept some percentage of the displaced refugees."

After previous calls to stop the relocations, Sarno's most recent request follows inspections in the city that uncovered poor living conditions including overcrowded apartments, overrun with pests and without electricity. While much of the blame for this problem has been placed on the landlords, the mayor has proceeded to ramp up his complaints against the resettlement program.

 “I want to help. All I am asking for is accountability from the agencies. You just can’t continue concentrating poverty on top of poverty,” Sarno told local paper The Republican in an interview on Friday.

According to The Republican, Sarno has faulted the government resettlement program for straining the city's school system and other services.

It is unknown how many refugees actually rely on city services. The city’s total refugee population is approximately 1,500 people, or about 1 percent of the city’s population of 153,000.

Springfield is one of more than 300 metropolitan areas in the US that receive refugees every year. Somali refugees were first resettled in the Massachusetts town in 2004, when 100 were relocated there. The government chooses resettlement areas based on urban infrastructure and access to public services.

According to a February report from the Migration Policy Institute, Texas and California took in the largest number of refugees in 2012, nearly a fifth of all resettled refugees in the US that year.

Like Sarno, other New England mayors have made similar complaints about the program. Lewiston, Maine Mayor Robert MacDonald recently told Somalis to "leave their culture at the door," and Mayor Ted Gatsas of Manchester, New Hampshire asked the State Department in 2011 to cease sending refugees.

The State Department doesn't deal directly with local governments, instead it partners with resettlement agencies to relocate refugees and displaced persons throughout the country. One of the nine resettlement agencies that work with the State Department is the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), which works throughout the country, but is not involved in refugee resettlement in Springfield, Massachusetts.

“You know we don’t bring a whole lot of people to the United States, right? There are about 50 million refugees in the world, refugees and displaced people, and we, this year, are going to bring a little less than 70,000," Lavinia Limón, president and CEO of USCRI, told VICE News. “The small number of people who actually get to the United States, it’s like winning the lottery."

Limón also emphasized that “the State Department is quite conservative, actually, around making sure that the community can handle that kind of capacity."

“The issue is not to say 'stop coming,' but it’s really about working together as a community," says Limón. "I’d really like to see these mayors really take leadership and say 'ok, you know, if in fact the refugees coming are causing this or that problem, how can we work on it together?'”

Follow Jordan Larson on Twitter: @jalarsonist


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