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.”