- Associated Press - Saturday, November 19, 2016

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Refugees will continue entering Maine despite Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s announcement that the state will no longer participate in a federally funded resettlement program.

So far this year, about 607 refugees were resettled in Maine, and more will arrive next year. Over the past decade, the state has worked with Catholic Charities of Maine to settle more than 3,400 refugees.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said its Office of Refugee Resettlement is working to appoint an interim agency that will administer earmarked federal funds, though a timeline is still uncertain.

That agency will likely be Catholic Charities. The federal government will later accept competitive bids for an agency that will take federal funds directly for refugee resettlement.

LePage’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of Maine stressed that for now, the agency will continue providing services to refugees in and entering Maine.

“We were certainly disappointed the governor didn’t contact us directly,” spokeswoman Judy Katzel said, adding that LePage didn’t have to under federal law.

The governor amped up his criticism of refugee screening and taxpayer-funded benefits for refugees after learning that an Iranian refugee briefly lived in Maine and died last year fighting for the Islamic State group. The man, Adnan Fazeli, became radicalized while living in Maine, and family members alerted authorities when they learned he had left for Turkey and Syria.

The Health Department said individuals receive services only after they are granted refugee status following “stringent security screenings.” That process takes 18 to 24 months.

This year, Maine received $2.6 million in federal grant awards to fund contracts and services for refugees like medical support and employment-related help.

LePage wrote a Nov. 4 letter to Democratic President Barack Obama saying he no longer wants Maine associated with the federal refugee resettlement program, and he has also opposed the settlement of Syrian refugees in Maine “until adequate vetting procedures can be established.”

LePage said FBI Director James Comey had told Congress the government can’t conduct thorough background checks on all refugees. Comey actually told Congress that a challenge with background checks is that data about people coming from Syria may be limited, and he later told Congress the FBI has an effective process to vet refugees.

The governor said Maine communities are being burdened by this “unchecked influx of refugees” and “especially prevalent” welfare fraud within the refugee community. He did not provide data for such assertions.

The Boston Herald reported that Maine state officials confirmed Fazeli received federal welfare benefits - a statement that Maine advocates said may violate privacy law. LePage also told the newspaper he would review all taxpayer-funded benefits for “refugee-related” programs.

The governor has also blamed rising instances of certain infectious diseases in Maine on asylum seekers, without providing data, and said asylum seekers expose the public to diseases like the “ziki fly” - a muddled reference to Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that might be linked to birth defects.

He opposes giving state general assistance benefits to asylum seekers.

Maine joins three other states - New Jersey, Kansas and Texas - that have recently opted out the federally funded refugee assistance program.

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