The state Senate continues to make seemingly savvy political decisions.
Senators tabled a measure that would have allowed communities to enact a one-year ban on refugees, a move Mayor Ted Gatsas has championed. Gatsas has been calling for a moratorium in Manchester for about a year now. He was thwarted last year, and appears to be thwarted again this year on the legislative front, since tabling the bill all but kills it. The House had previously passed the measure and might be looking to attach the bill to some other legislation.
The Senate has kept its head down for most of the last two years, focusing on legislation that improves the business climate, creates jobs and addresses state spending. Senators have more or less ignored legislation with the stigma “social” attached to it. The moratorium legislation, while the intentions of its supporters may be well-founded, is the type of legislation that can get lawmakers into trouble in an election year — particularly when the political tide hasn’t revealed itself all that clearly yet.
The argument for a moratorium might have plenty of merit in a lot of people’s eyes. It also might not be a particularly partisan issue. But in a legislature dominated by Republicans, making the moratorium request a statewide issue to be debated by the Republican-dominated Senate could have created a perception that lawmakers were anti-refugee. Democrats probably would have pounced on that.
Nevertheless, tabling the measure is a blow to the mayor of the state’s largest city. Gatsas wants a moratorium because he doesn’t believe the city has the services and resources in place to properly help refugees as they enter the city. He wants to fix the system before more refugees come in, Gatsas said during a Hippo interview last year. There are plenty of people who agree with him when it comes to Manchester.
The other side says an imperfect system in Manchester is far better than the situations the world’s refugees are coming from. But Gatsas doesn’t see it as fair to refugees or the city if the city and city organizations can’t help out effectively. There is also tension because Gatsas and city leaders don’t believe they have enough say with regard to refugees, with the International Institute of New Hampshire calling the shots. Manchester city officials want more communication between resettlement agencies and the city. Many supporters say that’s a good idea but that a moratorium isn’t needed to improve communication.
Those in favor of a moratorium see the current refugee resettlement operation as too fragmented with too many different organizations providing services, in many cases duplicate services. Alderman Pat Long said in an interview with the Hippo last year that this made it difficult for officials to know where to distribute grant money, for example. Gatsas wants more one-stop shopping for refugees.
A moratorium on refugees isn’t unprecedented, but it’s certainly not common. There have been a few instances in which communities have been granted limited moratoriums. Reportedly, Tennessee is the only state to have instituted legislation that allows individual communities to enact moratoriums.
Organizational moratorium opposition
A new group, Granite Staters for Strong Communities, formed in opposition to the moratorium bill. The organization is made up of a bipartisan group of “concerned citizens, business owners, civic leaders, and people of faith,” according to www.strongcommunitiesnh.org
“It’s time to move beyond the unproductive debate about a moratorium and start a real dialogue about the benefits of this uniquely New Hampshire program,” said Scott Spradling, spokesman for Granite Staters for Strong Communities, in a statement.
Spradling commended the Senate for tabling the bill.
Not playing this issue out at the state level would probably be good news for lawmakers who are seeking reelection this fall.
A Queen City problem
The moratorium issue is a Manchester one.
New Hampshire, which has a population of 1,316,470 people, according to the 2010 census, had more than 3,500 refugees resettle in the state during the last nine years. Sixty-one percent of those resettlements or 2,148 of those resettled have done so in the Queen City, according to information provided by the mayor’s office last year.
There are 13 refugee resettlement communities in the state, with just Manchester, Concord and Laconia receiving refugees in recent years. Nashua hadn’t been receiving refugees, although that was because the community had been slated for a large number of refugees but the process continually stalled.
Manchester, the state’s largest and most diverse city, does receive by far the most refugees, compared to the rest of the state, though resettlement officials say that makes sense, both for Manchester’s size and because it has the most jobs and access to some public transportation.
Refugees face a myriad of issues when they arrive in any new place, many of which are centered on how well newcomers know the language and how educated they are — essentially, how easily can they get a job. Gatsas has been saying the city doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to get these people into appropriate jobs.
Still, Gatsas said in reports that while city officials have complained about the lack of communication by the International Institute, nothing has changed on that front. Part of Gatsas’s issue is that the city isn’t given much notice on how many refugees it’s going to receive. For their part, resettlement organizations often don’t receive all that much notice on how many refugees they will receive either.
All parties seem to agree that improvements need to be made in terms of communication and service delivery, but the connotations of the word “moratorium” make this a tough one politically to get around.