Protesters supporting refugees from Syria and other war-torn parts of the world filled the steps of the Idaho Statehouse on Saturday to call for acceptance and compassion, while counterprotesters across the street packed the lawn in front of the statue of former Gov. Frank Steunenberg to call for more stringent screening requirements.
An estimated 700 people stood on the pro-refugee side, first gathering around 11 a.m. The crowd across the street swelled to about 300, it was estimated, with strong backing from the 3 Percenters, a group that backs such myriad things as civil defense and food sustainability, and also criticizes Idaho’s refugee program.
Both groups attempted to shout over each other at times but also synced up their chants, at one point reciting the Pledge of Allegiance together.
The pro-refugee group hosted speaker Freddy Nyankulinda, a refugee who is attending Boise State for a social work degree. He’s originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has lived in Idaho for about three years.
“I know how painful, how struggling, how challenging the life of a refugee is,” he said. “That’s why today I am standing here to (raise) my voice to others who are crying out on the borders.”
He said refugees are fleeing to the U.S. not to infiltrate the country, but because it is a safe haven.
“It’s because this nation is the greatest nation among all the nations,” Nyankulinda said. “It’s not just because they’re coming here to take over America, no.”
The counterprotesters said they don’t want to take any chances. Chris McIntire, spokesman for the 3 Percenters, said there is concern that refugees with malicious intentions have been getting into the U.S. and stockpiling weapons.
“Those on the other side need to understand this is not about hate. This is not about being against the humanitarian effort. We need refugees in this country, but we need them to be verified and we need it to be legal,” McIntire said.
“This country is built on accepting refugees, but also protecting the individuals who are here. If we don’t have accepting and protecting, then we have no future. Right now all they want to do is accept. And they want to talk about peace, love and compassion but they’re leaving critical thinking out.”
Sophia Brasil, who helped organize the pro-refugee rally, pointed out that an exhaustive vetting process already is in place for refugees, and she said it’s been sufficient for ensuring national security.
“We think that refugees need our support now more than ever, and we think it’s the moral thing to do. There is not a significant threat (from) terrorism,” she said. “They’re not a threat to national security. There’s so many refugees that have been coming here for decades and we have become a better community because of them and that will continue to happen.”
Many on the pro-refugee side said the fear their counterparts expressed is understandable, considering the threat of terrorism exists worldwide.
“I’m afraid, but my fear is not more important than Jesus wanting me to love people,” said Heather Sturgeon, of Meridian.
A Twin Falls protester on the opposite side, Amanda Collins, said officials should direct their attention domestically before taking in foreign refugees.
“We’re not against the refugee program itself, the refugees themselves: We love them all. We understand that’s what this country is founded on, and we believe that everybody could be good,” she said. “All we want is to make sure that we have security and that this country has security. And that we are here for our vets, too, and make sure that they’re first. Because they’re the ones that are living homeless on the streets right now. And bringing all the other people in right now is taking money and stuff away from them as well.”
Sean Foster, who helped organize the pro-refugee rally, said countries that can help, should help.
“We’re a refugee community. We plan on continuing that,” he said.
Refugee supporters crossed the street to talk to the counterprotesters, and leaders from both groups shared hugs and handshakes. The protesters gradually dispersed starting around 1 p.m.
Obama issues response to governors
The Obama administration has answered after hearing from Idaho’s Butch Otter and 29 other governors — all but one a Republican — who called for a halt to U.S. refugee resettlement after the Nov. 13 Paris terrorist attacks.
A letter signed by Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson outlines the “rigorous security vetting process” for refugee applicants, particularly those fleeing the civil war and Islamic State in Syria. Refugees, they write, undergo the “most robust screening process for any category of individuals” seeking U.S. admission.
The two secretaries affirm the administration’s “modest commitment” to increase the number of Syrian refugees to at least 10,000 this fiscal year. They note that Canada has committed to accepting 25,000 and that France remains committed to accepting Syrian refugees, which now number more than 4 million.
The majority of Syrian refugees the U.S. accepts are families, victims of torture and children, the letter states, with priority to victims of violence by the Assad regime and the Islamic State. A “very small proportion” of those accepted will be single adult males, and those accepted will be members of at-risk groups, the administration says.