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April 15. 2012 11:35PM

New coalition trying to help refugee communities

MANCHESTER — A group is forming in support of refugees who have come to New Hampshire through the federal resettlement program and are battling a proposal to allow communities to impose a 1-year ban on it.

Granite Staters for Strong Communities is still early in the formation stage. Spokesman Scott Spradling described it as a bipartisan coalition of business owners, concerned citizens, civic leaders and religious groups that hopes to raise public awareness about the issue, which has been the subject of debate of lawmakers in Concord.

House Bill 1405, passed in March, was the subject of a state Senate committee hearing last week.

The Senate Public and Municipal Affairs Committee is expected to make a recommendation as early as this week on HB 1405, which would allow communities to impose up to a year moratorium on refugee-resettlement programs.

“I think it's going to take some time for people to understand a little bit more about the program,” Spradling said Friday. “We do think that this is going to take time. It goes beyond the political process around one bill.”

Spradling said the group had about 50 members as of last week and is expected to decide on leadership roles soon.

Regardless of the committee's position or a vote in the general Senate, Spradling said Granite Staters for Strong Communities expects the issue to come up again.

George Bruno, a Manchester-based immigration attorney and member of the group, said he doesn't want to see New Hampshire gain the same reputation as other states that have had highly-publicized anti-immigration efforts.

“New Hampshire should be above that,” said Bruno, who testified at a hearing before the Senate committee last week. “New Hampshire has to stand on the side of freedom and liberty.”

Bruno noted to the committee that political refugees are fleeing a dangerous situation in their homelands and must first be approved by the federal government before they are placed in communities where direct family members already live.

“These are not new families,” Bruno said. “They have connections in New Hampshire.”

Committee chairman Jack Barnes, R-Raymond, said resettlement agencies should work with local leaders to foster better communications, which he hinted could mean the bill would not be needed.

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas told the committee that the suggestion is for a moratorium, not a permanent ban, that would allow communities to catch up and provide better support for the refugees already placed in the state.

“We're not looking for a freeze on resettlement,” Gatsas said. “We just want to allow the people here to be successful in our society.”

Although the House Municipal and County Government Committee voted to kill HB 1405 15-1, the House overall passed it on a 190-109 vote.

Bruno said the new coalition's future will be guided by what direction the Senate takes, but doesn't expect the issue to go away even if it fails to make it through the Senate.

“I don't know what we need to step back from,” Bruno said. “There's no analysis, no plan in place of what to do. It just seems to me to be an anti-position.”

Bruno and Spradling said the group is focused on New Hampshire and not affiliated with the national “Welcoming America” initiative. The state branch, “Welcoming New Hampshire” issued a release Friday with a commendation from Gov. John Lynch.

“Ours is very specifically geared to resettlement,” Spradling said. “The mission for our group is to give direct voices to these refugees.”


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