KALISPELL – The Flathead County commissioners this week joined their counterparts from Ravalli County, going on record as opposing the resettlement of refugees in Montana.
Commissioners Pamela Holmquist, Phil Mitchell and Gary Krueger voted unanimously Thursday to send a short letter to the U.S. State Department saying they could not support the relocation of refugees “without a legitimate vetting process and an analysis of refugee impacts to our local community.”
The letter said an influx of refugees “will overburden our community’s social services, health care agencies, affordable housing, job opportunities and local school districts.”
It also cited statements from the director of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security that say it is “not possible to adequately investigate the legitimacy of each refugee’s status.”
The commissioners adopted the stance after 17 area residents addressed the issue at a crowded meeting at the courthouse Thursday morning.
All 17 residents opposed refugees being allowed to resettle in the U.S.
“This is not a humanitarian issue,” said Jim Hawley of Bigfork, who identified himself as a retired Army colonel. “If it was a humanitarian issue, countries in the Middle East would take care of their own rather than putting the burden on us.”
“These people are not willing to fight for their country, and based on that they are not going to fight for our country,” said another speaker, Sandy Montgomery. “They want to destroy us. This is no longer about politics, it’s about good and evil.”
While every speaker who made it to the microphone opposed taking in refugees, not everyone at the meeting agreed with what they said.
“I think the people in that room have mixed up the victims and the perpetrators of what’s happening (in countries like Syria)," Will Randall, a member of the board of directors of the Montana Human Rights Network who lives in the Flathead Valley, said Friday.
Randall attended the Kalispell meeting, but said he didn’t try to speak during a public-comment period that was limited to less than 20 minutes before the vote was taken on whether to send the letter to the U.S. State Department.
The commissioners had already written the letter before seeking public comment, Randall said, and the meeting was “more like a political rally.”
He did issue a statement prior to the meeting.
“We are very disappointed that the Flathead County commissioners have been misled to believe it is impossible to adequately investigate refugees coming to the United States,” Randall wrote.
“There is a thorough and rigorous process for refugee applicants which includes screenings by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. State Department and U.S. Customs,” Randall went on. “This process can take up to two years. Only applicants that are strong candidates for resettlement in the U.S. – less than 1 percent of the global refugee population – move through the process.”
Randall dismissed the idea that refugees who might wind up in the Flathead would put much of an extra burden on social services, health care and schools.
“Flathead County has grown by an average of about 1,300 people per year over the last few years,” he wrote. “We doubt a few refugees will overburden the system.”
The hot-button issue continues to generate public debate.
A second “American Security Rally” is scheduled Saturday at 3 p.m. outside the Missoula County Courthouse.
One last month attracted more than 100 people.
An unidentified organizer said on Facebook, “I was told that if there is enough unease about refugees, the government will not place them in the area. ... Let’s make them see and hear the unease.”
On Monday, City Club Missoula will offer a pro- and con-forum called “Refugee Resettlement: What Missoula Should Know.”
The program will include Mary Poole, one of the founders of the pro-refugee group Soft Landing Missoula; Wilmot Collins, a refugee who fled Liberia’s civil war and settled in Helena; and Jim Buterbaugh of an anti-refugee organization called the Patriots.
KECI news anchor Steve Fetveit will moderate the discussion, which goes from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Doubletree Hotel Edgewater, 100 Madison St. Cost is $16 for City Club Missoula members, $20 for non-members, or $10 for those who opt out of the lunch that’s available. Reservations are available at cityclubmissoula.com.
Organizers say the discussion will focus on the implications of welcoming refugees to Missoula, the process used to vet and approve refugees, where the refugees would come from, and whether Missoula can or should absorb a refugee population.
In addition to the 17 who spoke against admitting refugees, commissioner Mitchell said he had fielded 40 phone calls on the subject over two days, and 38 supported the county’s anti-refugee stance.
“I do try to represent the majority of county residents, and I believe what we’re doing here today does that,” Mitchell said.
The anti-refugee sentiments were many.
“I believe it is not in the best interests of Montana and the United States to allow refugees or immigrants to come to the United States who do not agree with our Constitution, our values and the separation of church and state,” said Yvonne Statler of Kalispell, who led off the abbreviated public-comment period.
“Islam is not just a religion, it is a theocracy that controls every part of a person’s life and requires its followers to put Sharia law in place wherever they go,” Statler continued.
Another Kalispell resident, Dennis Gomez, told the commissioners he had grown up in Dearborn, Michigan, which he said has “the largest population of Syrians in the country.”
“They have Sharia law in Dearborn,” Gomez charged, adding that “we do not want that here.”
While there are plenty of websites that make a similar claim about Sharia law in Dearborn, others have debunked it.
Snopes.com, which investigates urban legends and Internet rumors, says the story originated in 2013 in a story in the National Report and was quickly passed on as fact by other websites.
The National Report, Snopes.com noted, is a satirical website that has also published stories under headlines such as “IRS Plans to Target Leprechauns Next,” and ones claiming a new study shows that pets of gay couples are worse at sports and better at fashion than pets of straight couples.
The satirical story about Sharia law in Dearborn said the city’s citizens could now be stoned for adultery or have limbs amputated for theft.
“There’s just a lot of unfounded fears and biases against all refugees,” Randall said.
Several speakers at the commissioners’ meeting said they didn’t believe the U.S. could guarantee no terrorists would slip through with other refugees.
“Both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have state on several occasions that they are unable to properly investigate and verify the identity of refugees,” Dee Kirk-Boone said.
“The potential impact of receiving a contingent of individuals from an unknown origin, without credible documentation, is frightening to say the least,” said John Donoghue of Bigfork. Donoghue said he sympathized with the plight of people in the Middle East, “but we also realize we must ensure the safety of our families and the sanctity of our communities.”
Others were more blunt. John Mello, who called himself “a simple soldier with a simple mind,” told the Flathead commissioners that refugees “aren’t really refugees, they’re military-aged men. If you think they aren’t going to start enclaves here and start demanding things from us, then you are all wrong. We need to stop this before it starts.”
And Harry Solomon of Bigfork said it should correctly be called a migration, not a resettlement.
“The entire refugee resettlement agenda is a (United Nations)-inspired plan to erase borders and dilute Western culture through mass immigration,” Solomon said.