Anchorage School Board seat D candidate Don Smith believes that refugees -- especially those from Central Africa and Indonesia -- are draining resources from taxpayers and other students in Alaska's largest city.
Smith, running against incumbent Kameron Perez-Verdia, first made the comments on Thursday evening on the Alaska Public Media show "Running," a recurring public affairs program. In an interview Thursday, Smith explained his reasoning: Immigrant refugees who are sent to Anchorage, and helped along by Catholic Social Services, are an unfair burden to Alaska and Anchorage residents. Smith's comments were not taken lightly by CSS staff and those who work with the city's refugee and immigrant populations.
Anchorage -- like every other major U.S. city -- receives refugees from the U.S. State Department and the United Nations. According to Karen Ferguson, who serves as the Alaska refugee coordinator and Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services program director, many are families. Ferguson said all are fleeing violence and starvation and have spent years languishing in camps before being relocated to the United States and other countries. None of the families "pick" Alaska; they are assigned a new place to live. In Anchorage, these new arrivals are helped along by Catholic Social Services -- a local network of nonprofit organizations run by the Archdiocese of Anchorage -- and its Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services program.
Smith claimed Anchorage has been given a special designation that requires it to take in people from across the globe.
"We are apparently considered by the State Department to be a refugee city, so we are taking on the problems from around the world," Smith said.
But Ferguson said there is no such thing as a "refugee city." Alaska is merely a participant in the national program, and Anchorage, as the state's largest city, receives the most refugees, many from war- and famine-stricken countries in Central Africa. Ferguson took issue with Smith's claims that Anchorage is being overrun with refugees. According to Ferguson, the city only got 38 new school-aged refugee children last year.
"They are just being given a chance to live in freedom," Ferguson said.
Smith said it costs between $15,000 and $17,000 dollars per year to educate one child in Anchorage. Refugees are not paying their way when they make Anchorage their home, he claimed, because they are on welfare and do not have good enough jobs to buy homes and pay property taxes -- a major source of income for the Anchorage School District.
"(Refugee families) are not contributing toward our education system, but they are being given the same education as my grandkids and other people's kids," Smith said Thursday. During Wednesday's broadcast, Smith said groups such as special education students and immigrants who don't speak English are taking resources from the rest of Anchorage's students.
Smith claimed that if you account for 12 years of public schooling, the refugees' children cost Anchorage taxpayers and the state of Alaska hundreds of millions of dollars total because their parents usually take low-paying jobs and don't pay property taxes.
"Do you think that a family from the middle of Africa, that came up here, that's been taken care of by Catholic Social Services, contributes?" Smith asked. "Maybe by the time the kid gets out of high school (the parents) get a decent job and can start paying some taxes."
But Ferguson said the small number of refugee families the state and the city take in each year (Alaska has the second-lowest participation in the U.S. refugee program of any state) often outperform other groups and make a positive economic impact on the city. Ferguson said 75 percent of adult refugees have a job within six months of their arrival in the U.S., and more than 75 percent of refugee families are off welfare within the first 12 months.
"These are the most well-vetted people you can invite to your shores," Ferguson said. "They come here incredibly grateful."
Smith said he knows his comments will likely raise some eyebrows across Anchorage, but as he sees it, Anchorage is shouldering the weight of the world's problems.
"All the do-gooders in Anchorage that like spending other people's money will probably be ticked off," Smith said. "But what I am saying is absolutely true."
Ferguson disagrees and said Catholic Social Services is sending Smith an email with refugee program information and an offer for Smith to tour the city's refugee facilities.
"I think some people are feeling a little bit uneasy about the diversity Anchorage has embarked upon," Ferguson said.