HELENA — 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 attended, but the groups did not clash. 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.
Jeffrey Lukas, an organizer with the Montana Human Rights Network, attended with a small group of counter-demonstrators.
“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.
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.”
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