The Flathead County Commission voted unanimously early Thursday morning to send a letter to the federal government explicitly opposing refugee resettlement in Flathead County.
In the letter, addressed to the U.S. State Department, the commission said it opposes resettlement in the county due to security and social services concerns.
“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,” the letter reads. “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.”
Due to those concerns, the commission wrote that it would not support relocation efforts without a “legitimate vetting process” and analysis of how potential refugees could impact the county.
A standing-room-only crowd gathered at the commission’s office in Kalispell for the March 10 meeting, with members of the public offering comment on the situation for about 15 minutes.
Everyone who spoke opposed refugee resettlement here, with concerns of Sharia Law and the country’s vetting process sprinkled through the comments. John Donoghue said he supported the commission’s letter, and that while he is sympathetic to those who have lost their homes and livelihoods to war, he doesn’t believe they should settle in the U.S. without thorough background checks.
Sandy Montgomery said she is “not in support of having any refugee here,” and that there are many veterans and other Americans who have fought for their country living in the Flathead. The refugees must not have wanted to fight, she reasoned.
“These people are not willing to fight for their country, and based on that they are not going to fight for our country,” Montgomery said. “They want to destroy us. This is no longer about politics, it’s about good and evil.”
Others said if Americans want Syrians resettled here, they should volunteer.
“I’m hoping that everybody here that is welcoming these people into our country will welcome them into their homes also; I’m sure you have a spare room somewhere for them and you can modify your menu to adapt for their needs,” Clarice Ryan said, eliciting laughter and applause from the crowd. “This is a change in custom and culture and we can adjust.”
After public comment, the commissioners thanked the crowd for gathering and voted to approve the letter, garnering more applause from the crowd. Commissioner Phil Mitchell said he received about 40 letters regarding the commission’s decision, with 38 supporting the commission and two opposing.
In an interview with the Beacon following the vote, Commissioner Gary Krueger said his concerns center on security; he said the financial aspect of resettlement likely could be mitigated through federal assistance, such as block grants.
Krueger said it’s not specifically Syrians he’s opposed to resettling here.
“It’s refugees from any country that has a government that doesn’t keep records,” he said. “I don’t care if they’re from a South American country; if they don’t keep records how can we know if they’re a danger to our country?”
The letter will represent the county’s opinion, Krueger said, but any resettlement decisions will be made federally. Commissioners Pam Holmquist and Phil Mitchell also supported the letter.
According to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, which runs Montana’s refugee program, there aren’t any Syrians headed for Montana at this point.
“We are not aware of any Syrian refugees in the works to be resettled in Montana,” spokesperson Chuck Council wrote in an email to the Beacon.
Refugee resettlement has become a hot topic across the United States, as well as in many countries in Europe and Scandinavia; an estimated 9 million Syrian refugees have fled their homes since 2011, when the country plunged into civil war.
President Barack Obama said the United States would take in 10,000 refugees in fiscal year 2016, which began in October 2015. The country accepted 114 refugees in February, bringing the total to 955 since the start of the fiscal year, according to Human Rights First, a humanitarian group.
In Montana, resettlement has been the subject of multiple rallies, both for and against bringing in refugees. Fifty-five state lawmakers, all Republicans, wrote a letter to Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock calling on him to block Syrian refugee placement, spurring a response from 47 Democrats who said the GOP letter was motivated by “divisive politics” because no governor has the authority to determine who is accepted as a refugee or where they are settled.
Hundreds of people gathered at the Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell in February for a presentation from Paul Nachmann, a founding member of Montanans for Immigration Law Enforcement, who said Montana should be cautious when considering settling refugees, because they can be a drain to finances and could compromise national security.
A March 1 counter-rally was held in Kalispell’s Depot Park to support relocation efforts and challenge the anti-refugee rhetoric. There were similar rallies in Helena, Bozeman, Billings, Great Falls, and Missoula on March 1.
In Ravalli County, a county commission meeting about resettlement drew so many people it had to be moved three times before the commission voted to send a letter of resettlement opposition to the State Department.
Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, reported more than 1.2 million people seeking asylum in 2015, more than double from 2014, and it’s estimated that about 2,000 people are arriving in Greece daily. The countries of Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon are together hosting more than 4.8 million refugees.