A local effort to open a refugee program in Missoula reached an early milestone a few weeks ago when a regional representative traveled to the city to meet the community advocates. Yet, as they discussed the prospect of opening Montana's doors to refugees, a larger political firestorm threatened to shut them.
Stoked by the Paris terrorist attacks, more than half of U.S. governors say they will resist resettlement of Syrian refugees, while Congress, including Montana's Republican representatives, is also seeking to halt the process. The backlash has put local advocates, who call their group Soft Landing Missoula, in the difficult position of trying to expand resettlement locally as even sympathetic politicians—including Gov. Steve Bullock—struggle to hold the line.
The stakes were raised again on Nov. 20, when 55 of the state's Republican lawmakers sent a letter to Bullock urging him to "put the safety of Montana first and not facilitate the admission of Syrian refugees into the state." Their letter marked the first public pushback at a state level to Soft Landing's work.
Svein Newman, one of the advocates, says he is saddened by the soured political climate and frustrated by what he sees as misunderstandings about the refugee resettlement process. At the same time, Newman says, the controversy has put refugees in the spotlight, and many people upset by anti-refugee sentiment are looking for ways to help.
One of those was state Sen. Tom Facey, D-Missoula, who organized a rebuttal letter signed by 46 state Democrats. The letter suggested "divisive politics" were perpetuating misinformation about refugee screening.
Facey says he wrote the letter after attending a workshop hosted by Soft Landing and a representative from the International Rescue Commission, one of nine nonprofits that works with federal officials to place international refugees. Having learned about the process, Facey says he wanted to point out that the governor doesn't even have legal authority to do what many Republican lawmakers are asking of him. "Why propose things that can't happen?" Facey says.
Still, advocates believe local support will be an important factor for nonprofits considering whether to open a resettlement office in Missoula. To that end, they hope to continue building a coalition of "faith leaders, community groups, civic institutions" and more, according to Newman.
"We're all very aware that it increases the urgency of fostering a productive community dialogue around this issue," he says.