Opponents of Missoula's quest to re-establish a refugee resettlement office in Missoula are "capitalizing on broader national fearmongering," the co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network said Monday.
"In a time where it is easy for fear to take hold, it is important to hold to our values to be a free and welcoming place for people of all faiths," Rachel Carroll Rivas said in a statement issued before a morning rally at the Missoula County Courthouse by more than 100 people with anti-refugee sentiments.
"Two of the core democratic values are to be a welcoming community where everyone can participate and the freedom to practice religion in that welcoming community," Rivas said. "These types of events and this hateful rhetoric flies in the face of those basic rights tenants."
Father Joseph Carver, Jesuit pastor of St. Francis Xavier in Missoula, quoted Pope Francis in a call to recognize and respect "the dignity of all persons everywhere."
The pope, who Carver said has made concern for migrants a centerpiece of his papacy, called on the world to hear "the pleas of thousands of people who weep as they flee horrific wars, persecutions and human rights violations, or political pleas or social instability, which often make it impossible for them to live in their native country."
Monday's rally, organized by Jim Buterbaugh of Whitehall, was called in part as an angry response to a letter Missoula County commissioners wrote last month to Anne Richard, assistant secretary of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
In the letter, commissioners Cola Rowley, Stacy Rye and Jean Curtiss said Missoula "is an ideal city for resettling refugees" and pointed to the hundreds of Hmong refugees who were resettled here in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as Ukrainians, Belarusians and others.
"Our communitiy enjoys good schools, incredible natural beauty, and a low unemployment rate, among other factors," the letter said. "Missoula County takes our humanitarian obligations seriously. We would be proud to help in this endeavor and support the opening of a refugee resettlement office in Missoula."
Soft Landing Missoula was formed last fall as the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis across the Middle East and Europe became known. It has been contacted by some 400 people offering support, said Emily Bentley, a Missoula City Council member who was in on the ground floor of Soft Landing.
"A lot of people with a lot of skills and incredible expertise," Bently said of the supporters, adding that Monday's protesters represent a tiny fraction of Missoulians.
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"Ninety-nine percent of what we hear is just tremendously positive," she said.
The International Rescue Committee is compiling an applications to submit to the U.S. State Department for a resettlement office in Missoula. Bently said it's not known when the State Department will receive and act upon it.
Soft Landing intends to work with the IRC, one of nine major federal resettlement contractors, to help refugees find housing and other services.
"Soft Landing really sees itself as going the extra mile fo rthe long term to help people integrate into our committee," Bentley said.
Bentley's name and phone number were among those of 10 City Council members, along with Rye's, appearing on a placard that Kathleen Whitton carried at Monday's rally. Whitton, who said she moved to Missoula from Atlanta two years ago "to get away from the riff-raff," urged people to contact their representatives to voice opposition to Soft Landing Missoula's mission.
Bentley said it's important to note that the City Council itself has taken no vote or other action concerning Soft Landing. She asked other council members to sign a letter of support for a refugee assistance center and nine of them took her up on it.
"It's really not appropriate to be aggressive or say some of the threatening things (opponents) are saying," Bentley said. "They can be mad at me if they want to. I can take it."
The state Human Rights Network's three-page statement said Monday's rally was put on by the "anti-Muslim ACT for America organization and Tea-partier Jim Buterbaugh," although Act for America chapter leader Caroline Solomon of Bigfork said her group had no part in the organization.
Buterbaugh, said the statement, is vice chairman of the recently formed Veterans Party of Montana. Tim Ravendal of Townsend, another speaker of the rally, "is a well-known political activist who has engaged in everything from opposing wilderness, militia organizing with groups like the Oath Keepers and Order of the Constitution Defenders, armed gun rallies, and, most notably, was ousted by a Tea Party group for advocating hanging gay people."
"Anti-refugee actions like the Missoula protest are being fueled, in part, by the prejudiced rhetoric of the Republican presidential candidates, especially Donald Trump, who has attacked nearly all traditionally oppressed groups from women to Jewish people," Rivas' and the Human Rights Network's statement claimed.
"These national far-right political positions have trickled down to the state level as well, resulting in a recent letter from 55 Republican legislators in Montana to Governor Bullock calling on him to block all Syrian refugees from entering Montana."