With Gov. Paul LePage taking final steps last week to end the state’s small role in helping refugees, there is an opportunity — and need — to finally empower the office that has been overseeing the refugee resettlement program.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Multicultural Affairs, which was formed in 2006, has never been given adequate resources to live up to its worthwhile and important goal of promoting equal access to government services for people of all backgrounds, nationalities and faiths.
In recent years, the office has served primarily to administer federal funds from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to Catholic Charities of Maine, the organization that directly supports the 200 to 600 refugees who arrive in the state each year.
The multicultural office’s last major duty will be stripped on March 4 when Maine’s withdrawal from the refugee resettlement program becomes official. Yet no one in the government seems to know, or say, what will come of the office, which today employs just one person.
DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards declined to answer multiple questions posed by the BDN about the future of the multicultural affairs office.
At a time when hate crimes against American Muslims are at their highest levels since the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks; when Maine needs newcomers to offset the state’s aging demographic and prevent economic decline; and when Americans are more divided along ideological lines than at any point in the last two decades, Maine could benefit more than ever from an office that’s dedicated to promoting understanding of and preventing discrimination against minorities.
The multicultural office was originally supposed to do just that. “It was supposed to keep a finger to the pulse of what is happening not just with immigrants but also other minority populations in the state, and potentially convene people and say, ‘Hey, we’ve identified an issue, how are you addressing that?’” Beth Stickney, the former executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, told the BDN.
Despite its anti-immigration sentiment, the LePage administration should grant the office the power and resources necessary to fulfill its original mission of helping minorities and preventing discrimination, such as by ensuring that non-English speakers can access government resources.
But we don’t hold any illusions about the likelihood of the office expanding. LePage, who has not just withdrawn state support for refugee resettlement but said asylum-seekers bring disease and the “ziki-fly” to America, made fun of Bulgarian and Indian immigrant workers, and sought to exclude both undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers from receiving state-funded public assistance, is not likely to increase help for underserved populations.
And even though he should, LePage is also not likely to inform the public about his plans for the multicultural affairs office, which was allotted $116,295 in state tax dollars in fiscal year 2017.
As it scrutinizes the governor’s budget proposal and puts together an alternative, the Legislature should support the multicultural office, with a more specific mission, to ensure its work is meaningful and helpful.