Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Refugees Find a Home In….Idaho?

The Republican Party has long been a home for those who feel threatened by newcomers who are “different” in some way.  Hispanics who have arrived legally or otherwise have been the most constant target of their ire.  With the immigration issues in Europe, and the acts of terrorism here and in Europe, Muslims have become the target of greatest suspicion.  Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president (at this time, at least), has powered his candidacy by making threats to eliminate, partially, or entirely, immigration from countries with a significant Muslim population.  This issue has been made more acute by the large numbers of refugees fleeing from the turmoil in the Middle East.

An article in The Economist describes relevant developments that have occurred in the small and remote (from Washington politics) city of Twin Falls, Idaho.  First, some background.

“After terrorist outrages in Paris, California and Brussels, in some cases involving attackers who arrived as asylum-seekers, more than two dozen governors and numerous members of Congress have decried the decision, made by Barack Obama in September 2015, to increase the number of Syrians admitted as refugees in fiscal 2016 to 10,000, up from 2,000 the previous year.”

“What’s going on is that whereas 158,655 Syrians completed asylum applications in Germany in 2015, Mr Obama’s much more modest target may be missed. Between October 1st, the start of the current fiscal year, and May 23rd, a total of 2,235 Syrian refugees were resettled in America.”

What does this have to do with Twin Falls?  It turns out Twin Falls has been in the refugee business for decades—and has been quite happy with its role.

“Twin Falls knows more about asylum-seekers than many towns its size. Idaho, with just 1.6m people, has taken over 20,000 refugees since 1970s, with most placed in Boise and Twin Falls. The Twin Falls refugee resettlement centre is managed by the College of Southern Idaho (CSI). Go back to the 1980s and the centre brought Vietnamese boat people and Cambodians, among others. In the 1990s war in the Balkans sent waves of refugees from Bosnia (several Bosnian families stayed, and provide much oomph to the local soccer league). The most recent arrivals have come from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan, as well as from Congo, Eritrea, Nepal and Iran.”

With the prospect of Syrian refugees arriving in town, one citizen, Rick Martin, took the lead in launching a petition drive to generate a county ballot initiative to vote on whether or not the refugee resettlement center should be closed down. 

“….rumours that Syrian refugees might be coming galvanised Mr Martin, who believes that Islam is ‘a violent religion, antithetical to American values.’ His grievances are broad: he says refugees take up much-needed affordable housing and drive down wages, and may have brought polygamy to Twin Falls. But insecurity tops his list: Syrians have already reached Twin Falls, he asserts, and there is a ‘very, very high potential that [Islamic State] sympathisers are in our community right now’.”

Given that Idaho is one of the most reliably Republican states in the union, one might have expected it to pass.

“….residents cheerfully call Twin Falls ‘ultraconservative’: the city and surrounding county, in the heart of Idaho’s dairy belt, gave the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, more than 70% of their vote in the 2012 presidential elections.”

What actually happened was that the petition drive was a complete failure.

“His ballot initiative failed woefully. He and his fellow-organisers had six months to collect 3,842 local residents’ signatures, but by the final deadline in early April secured only 894.”

Why did Mr. Martin have such a hard time?  City leaders decided to use a tool that rarely sees the light of day in current political discourse: the truth.  Those who actually have the facts gathered together and publicized what they knew.

“Refugees are not a burden on the public purse: they are helped to find work fast, and typically the newcomers pay more in federal taxes in a single year than they receive in their one-off resettlement grants. On average, refugees make over a dollar more per hour than the state’s minimum wage, and provide a useful boost to a healthy local economy. Unemployment in Twin Falls, a city of about 47,000 people, stands at 3.4%, well below the national average….”

“Refugees are screened for health problems and commit crimes at an exceedingly low rate….”

“Wiley Dobbs, superintendent of the Twin Falls school district, told the forum how special services for refugees and immigrant children, including two centres that prepare newcomers to learn in American schools, account for 0.42% of his budget.”

“Local businesses have long seen refugees as high-quality employees in a sparsely populated corner of the country.”

The author of the article suggests that the significant Mormon population in the region provides greater tolerance for diversity.

“Perhaps a quarter of the city’s residents are Mormons, and many churches of all denominations have long worked with refugees. Not least because so many young Mormon adults serve as missionaries around the world, Twin Falls families ‘appreciate having diversity’ in their schools and neighbourhoods, says Bill Brulotte, who directs federal programmes in the school district.”

The anti-refugee sentiment was defeated when residents were reminded of the truth.  Unfortunately, the truth is often a victim of the political shouting.  One must attack this destruction of the truth by continually restating the facts—loudly and clearly if necessary.

“….in the present political climate, a void free of facts is a perilous thing.”

A few hundred refugees per year show up in Twin Falls.  As of June, 2016, Syrians have yet to arrive, but one can have hope that they will be processed like any other group of refugees.

Given the inflammatory rhetoric emerging from the Republican candidate in this election cycle, it was both refreshing and enlightening to encounter a story that cuts through the political polarization and reminds us that there are good-hearted people to be found in both parties.

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