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Interfaith Council invites Rep. Scott to ‘Meet the Neighbors’ event

The Spokane Interfaith Council has invited Idaho Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, to a “Meet the Neighbors” event at the Spokane Islamic Center in January, in response to her legislative newsletter calling for a special session of the Idaho Legislature on refugee issues and declaring that Muslim refugees constitute an “invasion of our country.” I wrote about Scott’s call in my Sunday column here.

Skyler Oberst, president of the council, told Scott he was issuing the invitation “knowing your commitment to our country and our extended community in the Inland Northwest.” He wrote, “This event is designed to provide community leaders accurate and respectful information about the people they serve and live alongside, as well as highlight the rich history of our area’s religious communities. And what a rich history to share!”

Oberst then highlighted the stories of some of the estimated 5,000 American Muslims living in the Inland Northwest. “Most are born or raised as U.S. citizens,” he wrote. “They are upstanding citizens and exemplify the best of America. Like millions of American Muslims nationwide, they share the same American values and freedoms that we all cherish, knowing that we are all in this together, and they participate actively in mainstream society, and I look forward to introducing many more of them to you during your visit.” He pointed to Muslim area residents who are teachers, prosecutors, members of the military, nurses, pharmacists, business people and more.

Scott didn’t immediately return a reporter’s call about the invitation and whether or not she plans to attend the event. It is set for Jan. 20, 2016, when Scott will be in Boise for the legislative session, but Oberst offered to pay for her travel and hotel accommodations to attend. “Already, we have had Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich as well as staff from Congresswoman Cathy McMorris-Rodgers RSVP,” Oberst wrote. “I’d love you to be a part of building bridges of trust and understanding in the Inland Northwest.” You can see the full letter here.

Oberst, who is a member of the Spokane city Human Rights Commission, said, “We at the Interfaith Council have really been noticing a need for religious literacy, as well as bridge-building in the community. There seems to be a lot of disinformation and misinformation out there.” A Christian, he said, “We’re people of all faiths.” He said he hasn’t yet had any response from Scott, but is looking forward to working with her or her staff to bring her to the event.

It will highlight “specifically how long different religious communities have been here in the Inland Northwest, and their specific contributions,” Oberst said. “There’s so many wonderful people here, and I can’t wait for her to meet them, because they’ve enriched my life and the life of the entire community here in Spokane, so I can’t wait for her to have the same blessing.”

Of refugees, terrorism and the Kurbanov case…

A number of national news reports have recently claimed that no one who came to the U.S. as a refugee has ever been arrested for anything related to terrorism. We in Idaho know that’s not the case, as Fazliddin Kurbanov was convicted in August of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist group, conspiring to do the same, and possession of an unregistered destructive device. Kurbanov had come to Boise in 2009 as a Christian refugee from Uzbekistan, a Muslim country where he and his family were persecuted after their conversion to Christianity.

It was only after living in the United States, moving elsewhere for work and meeting and staying with fellow Uzbekis that Kurbanov converted to Islam and made contact with a terrorist organization in Uzbekistan that was linked to the Taliban; his convictions involved his activities three years after arriving in the U.S. He’s now awaiting sentencing.

Wendy Olson, U.S. Attorney for Idaho, wrote in a recent guest opinion, “Evidence presented at his trial showed that his criminal activity, his attempts and his communication with a known terrorist organization overseas began only after he had been in the United States for some time. Kurbanov’s actions were his own, not those of the greater refugee community. Both his entry into this country and his prosecution for criminal acts that occurred after he arrived are consistent with the principles of due process and rule of law for which this country is known.”

She added, “An equally important principle on which our system of justice is based is that we investigate, detain and prosecute people based on what they do, and not based on how they look, how they worship, the clothes they wear or their country of origin. Our history shows, through the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans in World War II, that when we ignore this principle, we get it wrong.” You can read Olson’s full article here.

Jan Reeves, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees, said, “Everything that I have read indicates that he became disaffected and radicalized after he arrived in the U.S. If this is the case, then it’s not about the vetting process.” He said he believes the case, instead, points to the need to make sure people who arrive as refugees “have all the opportunities they need to become successful.”

“Inclusion and integration is the best preventer of radical ideas and radical behavior,” Reeves said. He said people who feel like they belong “are not nearly as likely to act out against society.”

Refugee issue draws dueling rallies to Idaho Capitol over the weekend

A thousand people rallied in front of the Capitol on Saturday on refugees – 700 attending a rally supporting refugee resettlement, and 300 at a counter-protest opposing it on security grounds, the Idaho Statesman reports. The dueling rallies ran from 11 a.m. to about 1. Statesman reporter Erin Fenner writes that the two groups attempted to shout over each other at times, but also synced up their chants, at one point reciting the Pledge of Allegiance together.

The pro-refugee group heard an address from a Congolese refugee who shared his story; the counter-protesters, organized by the 3 Percenters, said they want to guard against terrorists slipping into the U.S. under the guise of refugees. You can read the Statesman’s full report here, and AP reporter Keith Ridler's full report here.

Rep. Scott wants special session to target ‘refugee crisis’

North Idaho Rep. Heather Scott sent a legislative newsletter out today calling for a special session of the Legislature to “draft emergency legislation to address the refugee crisis,” and declaring that Muslim refugees constitute an “invasion of our country” and will press “the Islamic agenda of domination and takeover.” The electronic newsletter was sent out at taxpayer expense through a new service being offered to state lawmakers this year, aimed at preventing their emailed newsletters to constituents from being blocked as spam.

Scott didn’t immediately return a reporter’s call requesting comment, nor did she say what exactly she wanted a special session of the Legislature to address; refugee resettlement is a federal program. Idaho just had a special session last spring, after Gov. Butch Otter was forced to call lawmakers back to Boise after they killed legislation regarding international child support enforcement; during that session, an amended version of the bill passed. Scott was among the leading opponents of the measure.

Jon Hanian, spokesman for Gov. Butch Otter, said Otter’s office has been receiving lots of calls about concerns about Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, in which at least one suspected attacker may have had a false Syrian passport. But he said he wasn’t aware of the office receiving calls backing a special Idaho legislative session. “I have not heard that we’ve received calls about that,” Hanian said. Yesterday, Otter sent a letter to President Obama calling for cutting off all resettlement of refugees in the U.S. until security procedures are reviewed.

Scott’s newsletter, which you can see online here, also called on people to attend two meetings today: The quarterly Community Coordination Meeting held today in Boise by the Idaho Office for Refugees; and a talk by anti-Islam Christian pastor Shahram Hadian in Sandpoint today entitled, “Refugee Resettlement and the Trojan Horse of Islamic Migration.”

 At the Boise meeting, a crowd of close to 60 people, most of them strong supporters of refugee resettlement, heard updates on Idaho’s refugee resettlement program and a talk from Kibrom Milash, who came to Boise as a refugee in 2013 and now operates an Ethiopian catering service, and plans to open a restaurant in January, after his first restaurant venture ended in a devastating fire at the Boise International Market. Milash, who operated a restaurant with his wife for five years before coming to the United States, said, “My dream was to open a restaurant after five years, but I opened a restaurant after just a year and six months.”

After living with his wife and children for three years in a refugee camp, Milash said, “Boise is very clean, very peaceful, it’s also very nice for family, for refugees.” He brought several selections from his catering service to the meeting for attendees to sample, including injera, a spongy flatbread made from teff flour, and dishes featuring spiced kale and potatoes, cabbage and carrots, and beef and tomatoes.

Jan Reeves, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees, told the crowd at the Ada County Courthouse’s public meeting room, “Certainly we all want to be safe in this country – we want to be sure that anyone who enters is not posing a threat.” But he said of the many ways that people enter the United States – as visitors, students, workers, immigrants and refugees – refugees receive the most vetting and security screening. He distributed a two-page handout detailing the 14 security safeguard steps refugees must pass to qualify for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, including multiple types of security clearances, fingerprinting, an in-person interview, medical screening, cultural orientation and more.

“This process has evolved over the course of 14 years” after the 9/11 attacks, Reeves said. “New background checks were implemented, and these have been expanded over the years. It is an incredibly lengthy process – it takes a year and a half to two years.” He added, “If it can be made stronger, I think that certainly should happen. … It’s really important that we do a thorough job of vetting people coming into this country.”

A handful of folks identifying themselves as concerned citizens attended the meeting; at least one enjoyed a fragrant plate of Ethiopian food during the presentations. The floor was repeatedly opened for questions, but nearly all were supportive of refugee resettlement. One man commented that he didn’t care “if the person coming into this country is yellow, green, pink, I don’t care,” but said, “If we don’t start activating states’ rights, we could have some real problems.” Reeves thanked him for attending and stating his opinion.

Most of those who spoke at the meeting touted Idaho’s welcoming nature, and the commitment of its faith communities, volunteers and agencies to helping resettle refugees fleeing persecution.

Asked after the meeting about Scott’s newsletter, Reeves read through it. “It’s disturbing that this kind of opinion exists in our Legislature,” he said. “We hope that with good, accurate information and data that we can present a different perspective on refugees in our communities than what I’m seeing in this particular posting.”

Idaho receives about 1,000 refugees a year, Reeves said. Last year, 1,062 people came to Idaho as refugees; the largest group, about 26 percent, were from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There were 25 different countries of origin for Idaho refugees last year; the second-largest numbers were from Iraq, including people who served the U.S. government or armed forces as interpreters; Burma; and Afghanistan. Idaho received 35 refugees from Syria in the past six months, 20 of them children.

“I do hope that this controversy about Syrian refugees can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and that it becomes less of a political football than it has been,” Reeves said. “In the 30 years I’ve been involved in refugee work, I’ve never experienced this level of political interest in the program. It’s always enjoyed strong bipartisan support from Congress. It’s seen as a quintessentially American activity, to help people who are oppressed come to America. … It’s really been our national story.”

Idaho delegation calls for halt on Syrian refugee resettlement to Idaho

All four members of Idaho’s all-GOP congressional delegation are calling for "suspending bringing Syrian refugees to Idaho through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program until better assurances of security can be obtained," according to a joint statement issued by the four. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Reps. Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador all said they back Gov. Butch Otter’s call to suspend the entire U.S. refugee resettlement program for a security check. Here are their comments:

CRAPO: “The attack on France demonstrates in stark horror the risks that not all who enter our country have peaceful intentions.  It has become evident at least one of the terrorists who carried out this plot entered the country under the guise of being a Syrian refugee. I support Gov. Otter’s call to suspend this program.  I have strong concerns about the effectiveness of how we vet those coming in.   And we must give our state and our local communities a strong voice in how they participate in the decisions being made about refugees in their community.  Of the more than 350 calls that have come into my office since this attack, all but two have opposed resettling Syrian refugees who have not been adequately vetted.  Idahoans deserve a voice in this decision.”

RISCH: “Having been recently briefed in a classified setting as to the methods and process used to vet potential refugees, I have serious reservations about the effectiveness and the guarantees currently in place with allows people into the United States from this region of the world. This government program is no different than other federal programs in which the government attempts to handle sizable undertakings, such as the response to Hurricane Katrina and the rollout of Obamacare. The safety of Americans is the first and most important responsibility of the government. The current process simply cannot guarantee our safety under these circumstances. Although the exact method by which the government vets these people is classified, I can tell you that after my review I lack confidence in the ability of the process to keep us safe. In addition, the individual states and communities should have a say in this process.”

SIMPSON: “I fully support Gov. Otter’s call to halt the refugee resettlement effort.  There are obviously serious concerns with the refugee screening process as it currently stands; and in light of recent attacks in Paris, we cannot move forward with accepting Syrian refugees. We have to focus our resources on protecting Americans and the homeland, and to do that we must first identify a path forward that will ensure verification that those entering our country will do no harm."

LABRADOR: “Last month, FBI Director James Comey admitted to me in a hearing that he couldn’t guarantee refugees coming to the United States would not include terrorists. I have since received no assurances from the Administration that the situation has improved. In the face of the malevolence of ISIS-directed attacks, it is only prudent to suspend resettlement until we establish reliable security protocols at home and abroad.”

Idaho has received 35 Syrian refugees, 20 of them children

Jan Reeves, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees, told “Idaho Reports” co-host Melissa Davlin today that 35 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Idaho in the past six months, 20 of them children. He said his office has met with staffers for Gov. Butch Otter to explain the refugee program, and noted that the state administered refugee resettlement in Idaho until 1997, when then-Gov. Phil Batt opted to privatize the program.

“Whenever I hear, ‘We don’t know anything about it,’ it’s not for lack of effort to try to create an understanding of how the program works throughout the entire state, the entire community,” Reeves told Davlin; you can read her full post here.

Reeves said halting the resettlement program isn’t the answer, but he isn’t against strengthening security screenings for refugees, saying it could help bolster the public’s confidence in refugee resettlement.

Otter calls for halt to U.S. refugee resettlement program for security review

Gov. Butch Otter today sent a letter to President Obama calling for a halt to the entire U.S. refugee resettlement program, until “the vetting process for all foreigners crossing our borders can be fully reviewed.” In a statement, Otter said, “It makes no sense under the best of circumstances for the United States to allow people into our country who have the avowed desire to harm our communities, our institutions and our people. The savage and senseless ISIS-driven attacks in Paris illustrate the essential inhumanity of terrorism and make it clearer than ever that we must make protecting our homeland from this threat our primary focus.”

Otter also said he’ll “use any legal means available to me to protect the citizens I serve.” His statement and letter came after more than a dozen other governors, most of them Republicans, declared that they wanted to close their states to Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks; refugee resettlement authorities immediately responded that governors have no authority to do that.

Lucy Carrigan, spokeswoman for the International Rescue Committee, told the Washington Post, “Governors and state officials do not have the capability to prevent a refugee who is here and admitted lawfully to the U.S. from residing in their state. It is not something they can do. There is a close collaboration with governors and mayors and community leaders about the capacity of the area for refugees and where they can go, but once they have legal status, you cannot impede their transit between different states.”

You can read Otter’s full letter to Obama here. Otter said he plans to discuss the issue with his colleagues when he travels tomorrow to a Republican Governors Association meeting in Las Vegas. “While I understand that immigration and refugee resettlement are authorized under federal law, I am duty-bound to do whatever I can to protect the people of Idaho from harm,” Otter wrote. “Instead of Congress rubber-stamping this program each year, we ask that you and Congress work with states and governors to thoroughly review this process and how states are affected.”

Otter also called on Obama to give states an option to “opt out” of the refugee resettlement program.

Opening of Uzbek’s terrorism trial prompts outreach to Idaho’s refugee community

As Fazliddin Kurbanov, an Uzbek who came to Boise as a refugee, goes to trial today on terrorism charges, U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson has been reaching out to the refugee community, refugee support agencies, the Muslim community, law enforcement and other groups in an effort to “build stronger, safer communities.” With the trial starting, Olson said her office wanted to reassure the refugee and Muslim communities that law enforcement officers will be vigilant to protect them against bias crimes. She also wanted to send a message that prosecution for illegal acts shouldn’t inspire retaliation against people for “how they appear, or how they worship or where they are from.”

She is working to form a coalition aimed at both preventing such bias, and engaging faith leaders, law enforcement and more in an effort to both guard against bias and work to prevent young people from becoming radicalized.  “There are many currents that seek to divide communities,” Olson said in a statement. “Instead, we have to come together.  We need to stand up and form strategies against those who espouse extremist ideologies and recruit others to engage in violent acts in our communities on their behalf.  We want to mentor our young people, educate parents, identify solutions, and form closer relationships between refugees and Idahoans who have been here for generations.” You can read her full statement here.

Meanwhile, Idaho Statesman reporter Bill Dentzer has a full report here on Idaho’s refugee resettlement program, which has brought 19,000 refugees from 50 countries to the state since 1980. Many refugees who’ve come to Idaho are success stories, he reports, building new lives and careers in their new home. But refugee resettlement also has drawn opposition, including a Twin Falls group that’s mobilized in opposition to a program that’s resettled refugees there since 1982.

Anne C. Richard, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, told Dentzer that refugees undergo a 13-step background and clearance process that takes 18 to 24 months on average, making them “the most thoroughly vetted category of visitor to the U.S.” 

Community gardens help refugees connect to new land, new life

For several years, refugees have raised their own produce at community gardens in Boise; a Washington Post article today reports that it's a trend across the country that's helping refugees with agricultural backgrounds connect with their past and culture while they build new lives in the United States. Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the International Rescue Committee's Baltimore office, said, "On a small scale, it's giving people a little bit of an opportunity to grow food for their salad, but on a larger scale, it's an opportunity for people to grow and build a space with what they have." Click below for the full report from Washington Post reporter Tara Bahrampour.