THOMPSON FALLS — The message is clear from the Sanders County Board of Commissioners: We do not want Syrian refugees on our land, “draining” resources, “impacting” the tax base, and possibly putting everyone in harm’s way. In an official letter addressing the issue, the commissioners cite a vetting process that is “foolproof”—meaning, one that cannot fail. Ever. And so, they have heard many voices ranging from Syrians are automatically terrorists to anti-Muslim attitudes—because according to many people, being a Muslim is proof of an egregious slight against the laws of God and nature.
Some, however, are willing to except them into the country—which they have been doing for four years, along with several thousand immigrants every year. It was over a century ago when Irish immigrants, escaping poverty and famine with the hope to start a new life in America were looked down upon as uneducated, paganistic, and uncouth. From an Irish-American heritage site:
After the Great Famine struck the potato fields of Ireland in the 1840s, Irish immigration to America took on a strikingly different character. The famine Irish were not the Protestant, relatively well-to-do immigrants who had assimilated seamlessly into American society for nearly a century. The new Irish immigrants were largely poor, unskilled, unfamiliar with urban life, and Catholic. These Irishmen were not welcome. Contrary to America's renown for liberty and tolerance, the famine Irish were met widely with bigotry and hatred. Many Americans came to believe that an excess of foreigners and Catholics would destroy the fabric of a blossoming democracy. Anti-foreign and anti-Catholic mobs attacked convents and Catholic schools throughout the Northeast. Riots erupted in Philadelphia and New York. Irish Catholics were shunned by landlords and shop owners and denied work in the factories.
Or consider, as an example, what Benjamin Disraeli wrote in 1836 concerning the Irish immigrating to England:
[The Irish] hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character. Their ideal of human felicity is an alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry. Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.
The use of Irish-American immigrants as a comparison to Syrian refugees is used as an examination of language and logic in anti-immigration concerns via safety. The author concedes Syria is vastly different from Ireland. However, the language used is similar to an extent, and worth considering.
THE CURRENT SITUATION
The Sanders County commissioners have unanimously decided to deny support for any Syrian refugee—unless there is a perfect system; one that can omits errors, using language in the official letter; a vetting system that is "foolproof." The commissioners have not publicly stated what they hope to achieve, but they are not alone in Montana. Is this an exercise of power? Or an appeasement of loud, scared voices who fear a Syrian refugee—on the run from ISIS, the survivor of four years of civil war, the person with the patience and diligence to fillout paperwork and apply for help—will go through hell to travel halfway across the world to Montana, the last best place, to cause violence. If that were the case, that would be one very, very, very determined person.
But the commissioners perhaps needed to make a stand, as many in Sanders County urged them to do. To say No! They are going to ruin our way of life! They will drain our resources, and so on. (This is a speculation on the author's part.)
Yes, the risk is there. The risk is there for refugees from Syrian, from Norway, from Mississippi, from wherever—because, as the novelist Richard Ford once wrote, violence is an intruder. Curious that the commissioners support (unanimously, too) the Rock Creek Project.
Is there no risk there, too? Where is their letter demanding Helca mining company devise a “foolproof” system that won’t deposit waste directly into the Clark Fork River? On the one hand, Rock Creek is paying Sanders County to mine and to be fair, try to dump as little as possible into the river. But it’s still a risk. One wonders, what if Syrian refugees came to Montana—and the county was allowed to charge $10,000 dollars per person. Would they still be dangerous? (This is, again, pure speculation on the author's part, and criticism of the two issue would not stand to strenuous debate—instead, the reasoning is used as a logic comparison.)
However, these two letters the commissioners have publicly commented on: first, support for the mine, and second not supporting refugees. Do they hold sway to who comes in Sanders County?
It turns out they might not have the authority or make the decision.
On April 7, Commissioners Glen Magera, Carol Brooker, and Tony Cox sent an official letter to Assistant Secretary Anne C. Richard of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration against any attempt at future resettlement of Syrian refugees in Sanders County.
The letter addresses a nation topic of debate in the U.S., as some citizens, lawmakers, and citizens fear that Syrian refugees will harbor anti-American sentiments and could possibly pose a threat to the lives of residents, not to mention an overall worry that within such populations of refugees there are terrorists secretly lurking in the wings.
On the other side of the debate are citizens who are unafraid and welcome the opportunity to help people from Syria resettle in local communities.
Locally, the commissioner’s letter comes after a packed meeting earlier in the month in which they heard public comments from county taxpayers on the subject. During the meeting, opinions ranged from vehement refusal of any refugees to open invitations to accommodate refugees.
The commissioners’ letter cites many reasons for their disapproval, ultimately resting on the principal of a “foolproof” system that guarantees refugees pose no threat, and by extension, that no harm will come to any citizen of Sanders County via violence, terrorism, and extremist Muslim ideology.
“While we can sympathize with the daily struggles of refugees,” the April 7 letter reads, “we do not feel they should be allowed to settle in Sanders County without thorough and foolproof background investigations and a vetting process that is guaranteed to work. We have an obligation to provide for the safety of our citizens, many of which have expressed serious concerns.”
“Resettling of refugees will also burden Sander County’s resources,” the letter goes on to say. “Our County already struggles with one of the highest unemployment rates in Montana. An influx of refugees would impact our social services, health care and local schools and have significant impact (sic) on our local tax base.”
“Therefore, we do not support the relocation of refugees in Sanders County at this time,” the letter concludes.
‘OPPOSE’ VERSUS ‘DO NOT SUPPORT’
Commissioners Pamela Holmqvist, Philip Mitchell, and Gary Krueger used more direct language in their official letter compared to the Sanders County commissioners letter, which repeats several phrases and words. To explain:
“The Flathead County Commissioners oppose the resettling of refugees in Flathead County,” the letter reads. “The Director of the FBI and DHS have both stated on the record that it is not possible to adequately investigate the legitimacy of each refugee’s status.
“Influxes of refugees will overburden our community’s social services, health care agencies, affordable housing, job opportunities and local school districts, many of which carry an impact to our local taxpayers.
“Therefore, we cannot support the relocation of refugees without a legitimate vetting process and an analysis of refugee impacts to our local community,” the letter concludes.
A MATTER OF AUTHORITY
The Clark Fork Valley Press sent the Sanders County Commissioner’s letter to Gov. Bullock’s office and requested a comment on the issue. However, an email obtained by the Clark Fork Valley Press sent from Bullock to a citizen revealed a question of authority in regards to the commissioner’s letter and jurisdiction.
In an email dated April 1, Bullock said that “no Syrian refugees have been settled in Montana and there are no formal requests to do so.”
“Refugees are screened more rigorously than any other people entering the United States,” Bullock writes, “but this process is driven by federal law and no governor has the legal authority to deny refugees entry in the country or any state.”
THIS IS NOTHING NEW
Syrian refugees have been placed all over the country since 2011. That is, everywhere but Montana, Wyoming, Arkansas, Hawaii, Delaware, and the Washington, D.C.
According to the U.S. Department of State, Syrian refugees have been admitted since Oct. 1, 2011. In that time, 2,234 refugees entered the country after “the most extensive level of security screening of any category of traveler.” Also in in that time, according data from the state department, no Syrian removed on terrorism charges.
THE VETTING PROCESS IS RIGOROUS
However, the fact is that Syrian refugees in particular go through a strenuous background check that involves several agencies.
To determine whether or not a refugee is a threat, the U.S. screening is “rigorous” and involves federal intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies such as the National Counter-terrorism Center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Departments of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Department of Defense.
To the skeptic’s valid argument, such as the commissioners of Sanders and Flathead Counties, which posits that the screening is less than adequate, the screening is “tailored” to the Syrian crisis via classified data shared with Congress, according to the PRMP.
WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?
One of the possible reasons for fear of Syrian refugees is the belief that a majority of the people are men. But according to government data published on the PRMP website, 77 percent of refugees settled in the U.S. last year were women and children, while 23 percent are adult men. And of these adult men, and overwhelming majority arriving with a family. 2 percent of all refugees are single, adult males.
HOW MANY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
Since 2010, the number of Syrian refugees is 2,234. That figure is current to Nov. 18, 2015. However, U.S. officials are committed to resettling 10,000 refugees in the fiscal year 2016.
THE UNCLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER
The U.S. has had Syria on its list of state-sponsored terrorist locations since 1979—the year the list was created. During that time, the relationship has been tense; Syria has been the subject of economic sanctions for over 30 years. During the 1990s the two governments were finding common ground on certain issues, but that changed in 2003, after the invasion of Iraq and the start of the war.
In March 2011, according to the U.S., students protested the current regime by spray-painting a wall—which provoked what the U.S. called a “brutal” response—and led to mass demonstrations and ultimately, to civil war. A war in which 146,000 people have died and displaced 9 million people.
TIME TO RUN
Many of the refugees who are entering the country are trying to flee the violence, and a level of uncertainty is coursing through public debate on the issue of Syrian refugees. You might even say it’s coursing like a river through the land.