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Lawmakers: Fed's stand no factor in refugee bill

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 17. 2012 11:45PM

CONCORD - Supporters of a state legislative effort to place a moratorium on new refugee resettlements say the bill should pass, no matter how the federal government may react.

House Bill 1405, which would allow communities to impose a one-year moratorium on refugee resettlements, has been pushed by Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, who said the community needs time to help existing refugee populations and said he was pleased by Thursday's House vote.

'This has nothing to do with not wanting refugees in the city,' Gatsas said. 'This is about giving them an opportunity to get a job, learn the language and become productive citizens.'

However, officials are unclear as to whether the legislation, if approved, would have any effect on the refugee resettlement program, which is run by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

During deliberations in the House, the bill's opponents said it could be unconstitutional because it singles out a particular class of legal residents and also could be a waste of effort because the federal government could continue its program despite local efforts.

Kenneth Wolfe, spokesman for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, could not be reached Saturday for comment.

'As far as whether this is a waste of time, I think not,' said House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem. 'I thought it was important to send a message to (the federal government) that while we value refugees in New Hampshire, we need to spread them out and not focus on one city.'

State Sen. John S. Barnes Jr., chairman of the Senate Public and Municipal Affairs Committee, said he believes the bill should be given a fair shake in the Senate when it returns to session on Wednesday.

'On its face, I agree with Teddy Gatsas 125 percent,' Barnes said. 'If I was the mayor of Manchester, I'd be doing the same thing Ted Gatsas is doing.'

However, he said he understands that the bill may have no effect on the federal government. 'The federal government is going to do what it damn well pleases,' Barnes said. 'I think the federal government oversteps its bounds sometimes. We will do what we think is right in the end.'

Gatsas praised the House members from Manchester in working to overturn a 14-1 vote by the House Municipal and County Government Committee recommending that the House kill the bill as inexpedient to legislate.

Just one House member from Manchester, Democrat Jeffrey Goley, voted against the bill. Goley could not be reached for comment.

'We very much respect the quality that refugees bring to our state. This legislation should not be seen as a criticism of them or a lack of appreciation for what they contribute to a community, particularly in Manchester,' Bettencourt said. 'They are a tremendous asset to our businesses and in many cases are a company's best workers. The core issue of HB 1405 is allowing communities to effectively and fairly assimilate refugees into the community without overwhelming the infrastructure of the community; for example, school systems and human services.'

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