Gov. Paul LePage has pounced on the recent unsealing of court documents showing an Iranian refugee who resettled in Maine and later joined the terror group ISIS.
But the governor’s eagerness to use Adnan Fazeli’s radicalization here to rail against welfare benefits for refugees may have led him to run afoul of a federal law designed to protect the identities of welfare recipients and their families.
State officials have not confirmed that Fazeli, or his family, received welfare benefits when he lived in Maine between 2009 and 2013. According to federal laws governing food stamps and cash assistance, they’re not supposed to.
“It’s concerning if that was indeed reported by Maine officials because federal law is clear that people’s confidentiality should be protected,” says Robyn Merrill, director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group for the poor.
Merrill’s concerns were raised by a report in the Boston Herald in which Maine state officials are quoted as saying that Fazeli, and his family, received cash and food stamp benefits.
Those benefits, known also as SNAP and TANF, are federal programs, funded mostly with federal tax dollars. According to federal rules, the identities of benefit recipients are confidential — only law enforcement, immigration officials and state administrators are allowed to know who receives the benefits.
Those same officials, according to the law, “must adequately protect the information against unauthorized disclosure.”
The Herald story also contained an interview with LePage, who told the newspaper that the Fazeli case prompted him to order a review of all benefit programs for refugees.
Merrill says that Fazeli’s radicalization here is concerning, but she worries about the LePage administration’s zeal to politicize it.
“It seems as though this one particular circumstance is really being exploited and used as justification to deny help to a whole group of people,” she says.
A spokeswoman for Department of Health and Human Services says she could not comment on specific welfare cases. That response raises additional questions about how the Boston Herald could cite “state officials” as having provided the newspaper information about Fazeli and his family.
According to the Herald, the same state officials also say Fazeli ceased to receive benefits after he left the country.
LePage did not discuss the issue during his latest town hall meeting in Sanford despite a question from a member of the audience. He instead discussed how the state is responsible for refugees once they arrive here.
In previous statements, LePage has echoed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, saying refugees need better vetting before being allowed into the country, but the governor has not offered specifics about how to improve the vetting process. He has also not said how better vetting would have prevented Fazeli’s radicalization after he moved here.
“I think that we generally like to leave politics to the politicians,” says Judy Katzel, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Charities of Maine, the organization that has helped resettled refugees in Maine, including over 400 last year. “Our focus is on providing the best services that we can through our refugee and resettlement program. And we do work with a population that is here legally.”
Katzel says Fazeli did not receive benefits from Catholic Charities of Maine, as asserted in the federal affidavit. He worked briefly as a translator to assist other refugees’ resettlement at Catholic Charities, but he was resettled by an undisclosed agency in Philadelphia.
Once he arrived in Maine, she says, he attempted to apply for benefits, but the agency could not provide them because his status had changed from a primary refugee to a secondary migrant.
Katzel also defended the vetting system and the work of Catholic Charities. The organization receives federal money to provide housing assistance, literacy training, school enrollment and employment opportunities.
“When a primary refugee comes into this country they have been thoroughly vetted through a comprehensive screening process and they literally come ready to work,” Katzel says.
Overall, Catholic Charities provides up to $950 per person for a benefit that lasts 90 days. After that, the refugees are free to apply for other benefits, such as food stamps or cash assistance. And because those programs are funded by federal dollars, states have limited control over barring people who are determined to be living in this country legally.