Some 80,000 people came to the United States as refugees in 2009, nearly 1,300 of them to Idaho. One of those arrivals, an Uzbek who landed in Boise, was later charged as a bomb-making terrorist. His trial starts Monday.
Arriving in Boise that same year was an Iraqi doctor whose father was tortured and executed in Baghdad by paramilitary death squads. The doctor found a job in a Boise hospital and works with his brother to help other highly-trained refugees resume professional careers in the United States.
Overwhelmingly, refugee stories fall into the more positive, and typically more mundane, camp. Even so, opposition to refugees and concerns about their backgrounds persist, getting the occasional boost from new threats, incidents or shifts in refugee policy.
The recent U.S. pledge to resettle several thousand of the estimated 4 million Syrian refugees displaced by war is prompting renewed concern in Idaho. That’s loudest around Twin Falls, where the College of Southern Idaho has worked to resettle refugees since 1982. It now assists up to 300 people annually, and a local group has mobilized in protest.
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“We’re not against refugees,” said Rick Martin, of Buhl, who leads the group that wants the college to end the program. “We’re against this program because there’s just so many unanswered questions that are not being addressed.”
Though aimed narrowly at a specific population, such concerns reflect a broader undercurrent of reaction that ripples through Idaho to foreigners and their mores and beliefs, which this year saw lawmakers walk out of a Hindu benediction in the state Senate and block legislation amid fears that “foreign tribunals” and Islamic law could undermine American jurisprudence. And last year, plans for a Muslim cemetery and mosque near Kuna prompted extremist elements to decry an “invasion.” The plan was approved.
With the trial of Fazliddin Kurbanov set to start, U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson announced on Friday that her office and other law enforcement agencies are on high alert for potential acts of bias against members of the refugee and Muslim communities.
“There are many currents that seek to divide communities. Instead, we have to come together,” Olson said. “We want to mentor our young people, educate parents, identify solutions, and form closer relationships between refugees and Idahoans who have been here for generations.”
ONE TREE IN THE FOREST
Since 1980, when the latest resettlement program started, some 19,000 refugees from nearly 50 countries have started new lives in Idaho, out of 3.2 million refugees nationwide. The U.S. accepts about 70,000 refugees annually. That’s only half a percent of the estimated 14 million refugees in need of homes worldwide, but more than all of the refugees accepted by other countries combined.
Supporters see the program as testament to American democratic ideals and to this nation’s mostly accepting history as a melting pot for successive waves of immigrants.
But what looms larger for concerned opponents is not that forest of millions, but the lone tree, such as an Uzbek in Boise who gained entry to the U.S. despite security checks that were supposed to stop him. Kurbanov is accused of planning bomb attacks at military bases and large public venues. He was arrested in May 2013 after FBI agents raided his Boise apartment and found chemicals and bomb-making components.
Measured against a population of millions, cases like Kurbanov’s are exceedingly rare but still cause for concern. The 2013 Boston bombings were committed by refugee brothers from Chechnya. With the rise of the Islamic State in the war-ravaged Syria in 2011, those who oppose refugees say greater risks could be on the horizon.
SYRIAN REFUGEES THIS YEAR
Through June 30, according to the federal agency that tracks resettlement, 858 Syrian refugees have entered the U.S. this year. Ten of them have come to Boise, where three of the state’s four refugee relocation agencies operate. The CSI center in Twin Falls has received none. But Martin’s group, which is holding meetings to promote its cause, still objects.
“For our committee, even if they had said the Syrians are not coming, we would still pursue getting the college out of the refugee business,” said Martin, who with others has worked for years to install new college trustees who would end the program. “They need to focus on their core mission, which is to continue to be a center of higher learning for adults.”
Martin said his group, which counts more than 100 members on a closed Facebook page, also objects to the overall cost of refugee resettlement, its effect on the local job market and the “slumlike” conditions in which he says refugees are housed.
Zeze Rwasama, director of the CSI refugee center, came to the U.S. as refugee from Congo in 2001. He says that the objections are baseless but that misconceptions about the refugee program are “an opportunity for me to reach out and talk to (opponents) about the program and answer their questions.” Mostly, he said, he addresses questions about security.
“Some people are saying, ‘Well, these people are going to change the culture of people in Idaho.’ I talk to them about how impossible that is,” Rwasama said. “What I’m seeing is these people are coming and changing their culture” to reflect the culture of their new home.
He said concern about “use of taxpayer money” also is misplaced. “Immediately after arrival, we put them into employment and they are paying taxes just like any American,” he said.
With a healthy job market in Twin Falls, it takes about 2.5 months for refugees to get their first jobs, Rwasama said. The positions are entry level, at low or minimum wage.
Finding work takes somewhat longer in the Boise area — up to five months, said Jan Reeves, director of the Idaho Office of Refugees, which oversees the state’s four resettlement agencies.
Reeves, who has been with the office for 30 years, cited a “pretty consistent need to provide public information” about resettlement efforts and “correct misperceptions when they exist.” Assuring people about security is difficult, he said, because the checks on refugees are confidential.
“It’s hard to convince people that they’re adequate and will prevent the wrong people from having access to the refugee program without being able to be specific about what those checks entail,” he said.
‘COMPLETELY IN LINE’ WITH HISTORY
At the end of the Vietnam War, with millions of South Vietnamese facing an uncertain fate under the new communist regime, the U.S. enacted the first program to help with refugee relocation and assistance. The 1980 Refugee Act advanced and formalized that effort. It has since expanded to serve additional special populations, such as victims of human trafficking.
Through the 1980s, the program was an effective weapon in America’s Cold War arsenal, with refugees resettling from the Soviet Union and its bloc countries. After the fall of the U.S.S.R., refugees from the Baltic states predominated, along with refugees from South Asia and the Gulf War.
The numbers shifted to Africa, the Middle East and South Asia in the 2000s. In fiscal year 2014, 28 percent of the nearly 70,000 refugees resettled in the U.S. came from Iraq, 21 percent from Burma and 13 percent from Somalia. Bhutan and Congo rounded out the top five, at 12 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively. The program’s federal budget for 2015 is $1.05 billion.
The program is “completely in line with America’s history of being a country that welcomes immigrants and refugees,” said Anne C. Richard, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. “These are people that have survived terrible things happening to them. But they also tend to be very resilient survivors to make it all the way out of their countries.”
Once identified for potential resettlement, refugees undergo a 13-step background and clearance process that takes 18 to 24 months on average, making them “the most thoroughly vetted category of visitor to the U.S,” Richard said.
The program “has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support from Congress,” she said. But security lapses have occurred. Testimony before the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence last month identified 10 cases dating to 2009 in which people committed or were charged with committing terrorist acts. That includes the two Chechen brothers who bombed the Boston marathon in 2013, having arrived as children with their parents 11 years earlier.
After two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky were charged with terrorist acts in 2011, resettlement of Iraqi refugees was temporarily halted. Security checks were tightened and strengthened. The two pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison in 2013.
“We don’t treat the subject of terrorism or would-be terrorists lightly here. We know how important this is,” Richard said. “My point is, you don’t want to throw out a life-saving program based on a fear of what could go wrong. We don’t stop flying planes. We strengthen the screening of people flying on airplanes.”
NATIONAL FIGURES, IDAHO’S RANKING
Each September, federal departments that oversee the resettlement process report to Congress and recommend a quota for coming fiscal year, which begins in October. This year’s quota is 70,000. From October through June, 47,306 refugees have entered. Texas has received the most, more than 5,000 people, followed by California, with nearly 3,800. New York, Arizona and Michigan round out the top five. Idaho, with 614 resettled refugees, ranks 26th among the states.
Nationally, the government works with nine organizations, six of them faith-based, to coordinate the efforts of 180 agencies in 350 communities in every state except Wyoming, which is looking for an agency to start a program.
Worries that terrorists are seeking entry disguised as refugees, from Syria or anywhere else, “is a misplaced judgment, in my view,” Reeves said.
“The people that are fleeing the Middle East are fleeing those forces of violence and brutality that we oppose,” he said. “What they all have in common is that they are human beings that have been degraded, dehumanized, deprived of their rights and essentially forced to leave their homelands. That’s really what a refugee is, regardless of where they’re coming from.”