Gov. Paul LePage’s refusal to administer the state’s federally funded refugee resettlement program will do nothing to prevent Maine and the rest of the United States from providing a safe haven for people fleeing war-torn countries. A nonprofit agency will simply step in and fill the void.

Instead the real danger comes from President-elect Donald Trump, whose anti-refugee rhetoric has given Americans a distorted view of the resettlement program, and whose administration promises to reduce or end it.

As we give thanks for all we have as Americans, and prepare for a season of giving, there is an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a moral country and the world’s superpower, with the ability to provide sanctuary for people coming from unimaginable circumstances.

RELATIVELY FEW REFUGEES

LePage notified the federal government in a Nov. 4 letter that he would not administer the refugee resettlement program “until adequate vetting procedures can be established,” joining 13 other states. He went on to misquote the FBI director on the competency of that vetting process, and said Maine has been burdened by an “unchecked influx of refugees.”

Trump used much of the same language, noting during a campaign stop in Portland that “hundreds of thousands of refugees” were streaming into the United States.

But there is no deluge. Maine received 607 immigrants last year. If the state’s population is represented by a capacity crowd at Fenway Park, that’s like adding 17 more people to the bleacher seats.

The U.S. accepted around 85,000 refugees in fiscal year 2016, including a record 38,901 Muslim refugees — in a country of 320 million.

Among them were 12,587 Syrians who fled airstrikes, terrorist attacks and starvation at home, then spent months if not years in official or makeshift refugee camps that are dangerous in their own right before being approved for refugee status.

If Trump follows through on his campaign promises, that lifeline would be cut off, based on the fear that the resettlement program raises the possiblity of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

THOROUGHLY SCREENED

But a sober look at the program shows that is not the case, certainly not to the degree claimed by Trump and LePage.

Anyone with an internet connection can look up the particulars of the program, which takes 18-24 months and includes multi-agency background checks, in-person interviews and other safeguards. Refugees make up about one-tenth of the immigrants who come into this country, and they are the most thoroughly screened category.

There are some weaknesses, including the reliability of information coming out of some source countries, but opponents calling for “adequate vetting procedures” seem to miss that they are already in place, and that there are far easier ways for someone dangerous to get into the country.

There are 5 million Syrian refugees — half of them children — and the U.S. has taken fewer than 15,000. Congress should address those shortfalls where they exist, but there is no need to bring a halt to the program, not when so much help is needed to quell this enormous humanitarian disaster, and not when the refugee program has had so few failures.

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, more than 800,000 refugees have come to the United States, many from Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq, not inconsequentially places where the American military has intervened. In all that time, and out of all those people, only five have been arrested on terrorism-related grounds, and none have been involved in an attack.

It is impossible to say that no refugee with terrorism in mind will get through. But we cannot let outsized fear paralyze us while a world in crisis needs our help.

Our country was strengthened by Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants, as well as by Vietnamese and Cuban refugees who came here fleeing war and dictatorships.

On the flip side, to our lasting shame, hundreds of Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany were turned away as a threat to national security.

In another trying time, we cannot let that happen. We are better than our prejudices, and stronger than our fears.


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