THE BUZZ: Refugee Debate Reignites

By on December 1, 2015

Have the Paris attacks stifled progress in Wyoming to adopt a refugee resettlement program?

Caption: Bertine Bahige with his daughter, Giselle. Bahige escaped persecution in Rwanda and was able to plant roots in Gillette, Wyoming where he works as a teacher. (Photo: Reiley wooten, gillette news record)

Bertine Bahige with his daughter, Giselle. Bahige escaped persecution in the Congo, fleeing to the U.S. He was eventually able to plant roots in Gillette, Wyoming, where he works as a teacher. (Photo: Reiley wooten, Gillette News Record)

Bertine Bahige’s life changed forever when he came to Wyoming 10 years ago. After attending the University of Wyoming on a scholarship, he married a Gillette woman and was able to plant roots as a high school math teacher. He fled his home country because rebel groups in Rwanda began torturing his family in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Knowing how hard it is to arrive in America and build a new life after facing persecution, Bahige is passionate about supporting a refugee resettlement program here in Wyoming, the only state in the nation that doesn’t have one.

Bahige worries about Governor Matt Mead’s recent move to join governors from more than half the U.S. in asking President Barack Obama for a temporary ban on refugees. “He completely undid all of the progress we made on the refugee resettlement program with his stance,” Bahige said. “He is just going blindly on fear and playing into ISIS.”

For the U.S. to accept a person as a refugee, current protocal subjects people to 18 months of waiting and interviews with six or seven organizations, Bahige explained. It is much easier to enter the country on a student visa or as a tourist, he said.

Bahige worries that people are wrongly associating terrorists with refugees. “Why not stop the Belgians from entering the U.S.?” he asked, adding that the terrorist suspects from the bombings in Paris, most of whom came from Belgium, were not refugees. But his biggest disappointment is that Mead still hasn’t decided whether Wyoming will continue to be the only state in the nation without a refugee resettlement program.

An outcry from constituents, who stymied the introduction of a resettlement program a year and a half ago, has begun again in support of the Governor’s stance. “No state should have to endure the threat of terrorists entering our borders,” Mead said in a recent statement. “The President needs to make certain an absolutely thorough vetting system is in place that will not allow terrorists from Syria or any other part of the world into our country. In light of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, I have joined other governors in demanding the refugee process be halted until it is guaranteed to provide the security demanded by Wyoming and United States citizens. I have written the President … to make it known Wyoming will not accept a lackluster system that allows terrorists to slip through the cracks.”

The Wyoming Humanities Council, which pointed out that the governor’s office received 600 calls opposing refugees in Wyoming and none in favor, used this statement to reopen the debate about the state’s role in offering a safe haven to refugees.

Refugee rhetoric

The 1980 Refugee Act gives the federal government authority to place refugees anywhere in the country, and once they are settled they are free to move wherever they like. Without a resettlement program, which offers non-governmental organizations federal funds through the state department to give basic services that help refugees find a job and a place to live, there are no services dedicated to refugees in Wyoming. But there is also no one tracking them.

“If they’re here, we would like to know the numbers, what services they’re using, what’s happening along those lines,” Mead told the Casper Star Tribune recently. “And in some ways, as I’ve said before, we’re kind of flying blind in Wyoming.” Mead was not available for further comment. But his spokesperson, Seth Waggoner, said “it is time to pause until we get it right, absolutely right.” He added: “The Governor continues to believe that immigrants and refugees who come to America in search of a better life make our country strong.”

Unsurprisingly, Republican State Rep. Marti Halverson supports the governor’s call to ban refugees but is open to a new debate to raise accountability and track refugees in the state, and plans to introduce the topic when the state legislature opens its new session next year. “When we talked about this two years ago, no one knew about ISIS. Now we know there is a segment of people in the world that wakes up and wants to kill us,” Halverson said. “We had a meeting of the Wyoming Republican party in Torrington last week and had a lively discussion ranging the spectrum from ‘bringing them here is our Christian duty,’ to ‘over my dead body.’”

Democratic State Rep. Andy Schwartz admitted he didn’t know much about the resettlement program. But he said he doubts that it will go far given the governor is “using fear as a political mechanism.” The likelihood of Wyoming adopting a program now is probably slim, he said.

While the Wyoming Humanities Council said it is not advocating for a resettlement program, it will host discussions around the state beginning in February to discuss Wyoming’s role in the refugee crisis. The first panel will be February 26 at the Casper College Humanities Festival at Casper College.

“If anything [Mead’s stance] highlights the need to talk about this issue,” said Shannon Smith, executive director of the Humanities Council. “With nearly 60 million people on the planet displaced by conflict and persecution, which is the highest level ever recorded by the U.N. Refugee Agency, how do we want to support our fellow human beings?”

Jackson Mayor Sara Flitner declined to comment on the governor’s call to ban refugees, however, she says she supports the conversation and her gut tells her that more compassion and less fear is needed when it comes to refugees. “I love the idea of what the Humanities Council is doing,” she said. “I think leaders will respond to what their constituents ask for.”

Don’t follow in our footsteps

Wyoming’s brazen anti-refugee role may set an example for other states, some fear. Suzan Marie Pritchett, a professor at University of Wyoming College of Law, said she is concerned that other states will try to opt out of the resettlement program in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. “What used to be our bargaining chip [to be the last state to start a resettlement program], could be a selling point [for other states to opt out of the program],” Pritchett said.

Obama issued a notice last week to governors through the office of refugee reinstatement that if a state denies benefits to a refugee it would be a violation of the law. He is also threatening to veto a bill Congress recently passed to scrutinize Syrians even further. The bill addresses governors’ concerns by essentially suspending the refugee program. It would require the Homeland Security secretary, FBI director and national intelligence director certify to Congress that each Syrian or Iraqi refugee is not a security threat before a refugee can be admitted into the U.S.

Pritchett sees this as a potentially pivotal time. “Right after Mead made his statement we thought, oh no, this is maybe the end of the road for the resettlement program,” Pritchett said. “But now, more than ever, it is time to stand up for what’s right, join the program and let individuals who are fleeing for their life get situated and begin their lives again.”

Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement for Catholic Community Service of Utah, part of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said there is a lot of panic surrounding refugees right now because one of the suspected terrorists used a Syrian refugee passport. But the United States program is so rigorous that he has been waiting for Syrian refugees for two years. Most of them are women and children whose families have been tortured and killed.

Since 2012, about 2,000 Syrian refugees have been accepted into the United States. The Obama administration announced in September that 10,000 Syrians would be allowed entry next year. Though that number is ostensibly now in question. “The people doing the evil acts want the international community to stop helping,” Batar said. “If we do what they want, then the evil is going to win. We need to stand up and show them that America is not a community of fear.” PJH

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