A group opposed to granting safe haven to refugees rallied Monday at Montana's Capitol, claiming those fleeing violence-torn regions of the Middle East are a national security threat.
About a dozen counter-demonstrators also attended.
In all, nearly 100 people turned out for the rally, the second demonstration organized by a group operating under the banner of "American Security Rally of Montana." Another event last month in Missoula drew scores of people.
"I'm so sad about what's happening," said Kay Beggins, who arrived from Townsend to join the rally. She held a handwritten sign that said "Stop ISIS," referring to the Islamic State group that has taken control of swaths of Iraq and Syria.
The ongoing strife in Syria and Iraq has displaced millions of people, with hundreds of thousands seeking refuge in other countries.
"If they're peace-loving, I'm fine with it," Beggins said, "but they have to be vetted and have to arrive legally."
President Barack Obama has said that the U.S. will take in some 10,000 refugees from Syria this year, and more next year.
Syrians initially file refugee claims with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which then refers them to the U.S. government. The process has no guarantee of approval and can take several years. Syrians wait nearly three years on average for approval to come to the U.S.
The Montana group invited Gov. Steve Bullock, Attorney General Tim Fox and other elected officials to speak, but none showed up.
Some of the counter-protesters carried signs supporting Syrian resettlement in Montana.
In a scene reminiscent of last month's rally in Missoula, one of those opponents was shouted down after organizers handed over the microphone to rally attendees.
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Jeffrey Lukas, an organizer with the Montana Human Rights Network, attended with a small group of counter-demonstrators. The Helena-based nonprofit supports refugee resettlement in the state.
"They talk about some bogeyman in this city, that city — and they want to strike fear — and what are we going to do when they come here," he said.
Officials with the Montana Human Rights Network issued a statement Saturday railing against the event, one they said aimed to capitalize on “broader national fear-mongering of refugees, Arab Americans, and immigrants.”
Rachel Carroll Rivas, the group’s co-director, reiterated those concerns hours after the rally wrapped up Monday afternoon.
“I’m not inclined to believe they’re particularly interested in a serious dialogue,” she said of the rally’s organizers and supporters. “I think this is about rhetoric and spreading fear.”
Rivas said much of that rhetoric trickles down from the field of candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination, where plain-spoken front-runner Donald Trump has ignited several controversies with his remarks about Muslims and Mexican immigrants.
Rivas’ group plans to host a series of its own refugee events across the state, including vigils and marches, on March 1.
Montana and Wyoming are the only two states without a resettlement office, according to Mary Poole, who is leading an effort to re-establish a refugee program. It operated for about 30 years before closing down in 2008.
"It's a difficult conversation to have because people are getting the wrong information," Poole said. "To just blatantly preach hate against an entire group of people is unacceptable."
Independent Record reporter James DeHaven contributed to this report.