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Washington County won't pay to resettle refugees

May 09, 2007|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Four Washington County Commissioners said Tuesday that the county won't help pay to resettle persecuted foreign refugees in the Hagerstown area.

Last week, George H. Miller, the coordinator of the Virginia Council of Churches' Hagerstown office, asked the county for $15,000 for the program.

The commissioners didn't discuss the proposal. Meeting minutes say they'd decide "at a later date."

On Tuesday, after their weekly meeting, four commissioners said they oppose the request, so there's no reason to bring it up again.

"I'm not in favor of taxpayer funding" for the program, Commissioner William J. Wivell said.

The Hagerstown City Council previously denied the same request from Miller.

The two rejections won't change plans to bring up to 100 more refugees to Washington County in the next 18 months, said Richard Cline, the Virginia Council of Churches' refugee resettlement director.

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Most are Burmese now living in refugee camps in Thailand, he said.

Miller told the commissioners last week that 200 refugees would be placed in the county by Sept. 30, 2008, but Cline said Tuesday that Miller was mistaken.

He said the U.S. government pays to resettle people facing political, ethnic or religious persecution in their home countries, but other donations are needed.

Refugees - from Belarus in the former Soviet Union - first settled in Washington County through the program's Carroll County, Md., office in the 1990s, Cline said.

About 150 Meskhetian Turks, also from the Soviet Union, have come to Washington County in the last 18 months or so, he said.

The Virginia Council of Churches took over the Carroll County office and moved it to Hagerstown.

The program drew attention last year because of a communication barrier involving African refugees. A pregnant woman's morning sickness sparked a biohazard scare that shut down part of downtown Hagerstown.

Cline said resettlement means new life for people who might languish in refugee camps for years until they can leave.

Local residents and elected officials have reacted with skepticism to the program - and with strong opposition, as indicated by numerous calls and e-mails to the county commissioners after last week's funding request. Commissioners President John F. Barr said it was like floodgates opening.

Many people confused the refugees' situation with illegal immigration, which are separate issues, he said.

"My concern is what they're indirectly costing the community ...," Barr said, citing, as an example, the number of refugee students who don't speak English but attend local schools. "The request made last Tuesday is a drop in the bucket."

Commissioners James F. Kercheval and Terry Baker also said Tuesday that they oppose the request.

Kercheval said there's no point continuing the discussion because there was no support among the commissioners last week.

"We need to be taking care of our county citizens first," Baker said.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire couldn't be reached by phone after Tuesday's meeting, but said last week that a lack of local sponsorship for refugees would be a good reason not to take in any more.

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