July 13, 2006

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Manchester Publisher's Note: The refugee puzzle
By Jody Reese

Having just gotten through graduation time in Manchester, many young people are making good on promises to flee the city the first chance they get.

But what about people who flee to Manchester? There are a lot of them. In the past decade, the Queen City has absorbed an enormous number of refugees from all corners of the globe.

They come from Bosnia, from Somalia, from Sudan. They flee oppression, chronic poverty and disease. They arrive in the United States and are guided by resettlement agencies such as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau (a division of the federal Department Homeland Security) to places like Manchester, which is ranked as a good place for refugees to make a new start.

Through this process, Manchester has come to absorb nearly 2,000 refugees in the past five years alone. In addition, we are home to a large population of new immigrants, legal and illegal. It all adds up to a significant issue for the Queen City.

I think it’s fantastic that Manchester is absorbing these new citizens. In many ways, they are the city’s future. They’re willing to work hard. They start new businesses that lend diversity to the city and contribute to economic growth. In many respects, they make Manchester a more interesting and dynamic place, which is good for business now and in years to come.

Where else in northern New England can you find in city bona fide markets specializing in Russian food, neighborhood stores selling African imports, and any number of restaurants and bodegas where you’re encouraged to “hablamos Espanol?” Listen carefully, you can still hear French around the city as well.

This is in stark contrast to our neighboring cities. During the past five years, when Manchester took in an average of one new refugee per day, Nashua welcomed exactly zero the whole time. Not one! The Gate City certainly has communities of new immigrants, but they aren’t getting any refugees.

Manchester, a city that has benefited from waves of immigration, should be proud that this tradition continues through refugee resettlement. However, we also need to be careful that the current stream of refugees doesn’t leave city services and agencies unfairly overburdened.

After all, it’s the federal government, not Manchester, that extends refugee status to new arrivals. So when they become a burden on local healthcare and education and other tax-supported services, it almost amounts to an unfunded mandate on our community.

In truth, the feds do make available all kinds of aid for cities and towns to provide services to refugees. Currently, Manchester service agencies, city departments, and other agencies avail themselves of it as much as possible.

But more could be done, and should be done. Our Congressional delegation, especially U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg and John E. Sununu, need to remember that the state they represent is one of increasing diversity, especially in its largest city.

As such, they need to look out for ways the federal government can help Manchester more effectively integrate these new arrivals, to turn them from refugees into productive citizens.

Isn’t that what this process is all about in the first place?


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