by Joseph Thiel
Joseph Thiel served on the Board of Regents of the Montana University System from 2011-2013. He is now pursuing his doctorate in education at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
Politics is the art of the possible.
Except, it seems, in the mind of Montana House Speaker Austin Knudsen. In his June 20th guest column in the Missoulian, Speaker Knudsen lauded Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte’s stance on refugee resettlement. Knudsen and Gianforte argue that Governor Steve Bullock should firmly oppose Syrian refugees (or indeed refugees fleeing any Muslim country) being resettled in Montana.
There is a problem, however. Governor Bullock has no power to halt refugee resettlement in Montana or anywhere else. Those powers are granted solely to the Federal government.
This isn’t a hypothetical. A recent attempt by Texas Governor Greg Abbot to halt refugee resettlement was tossed out of court. Any action Governor Bullock might take on refugees would not only be futile, it would be wasteful. Governors do not determine who enters our country. Testing this point further would only serve to funnel tax dollars into lawyers’ pockets.
This is not the only point on which Speaker Knudsen is incorrect. He insinuates that refugees emigrate illegally. He claims they are “moved to the front of the line,” “given privileged status,” and that they may seek citizenship without taking “courses in U.S. history, civics or English, as is required of [other] foreigners.”
Wrong. On each point. In fact, while fleeing war, terror, violence, and hunger, refugees are subject to much stricter criteria and scrutiny than typical American immigrants – scrutiny miles beyond what those who enter on tourist visas endure. Those few who are granted admission to the United States undergo a cultural orientation course prior to departure and are met by one of nine non-profit groups, which help them to integrate and assimilate. When, after five years of permanent residence, refugees are eligible to apply for citizenship, they must meet the same educational and language requirements as other immigrants.
Speaker Knudsen raises some reasonable concerns. He fears refugees who refuse to assimilate or who bring cultural practices at odds with American society. His prescriptions, however, would be disastrous. Barring victims of war based on religion or point of origin is at odds with our most basic values. It would diminish our reputation as a charitable nation and would contradict international norms regarding religious freedom and non-discrimination that the United States has worked to advance. Most fundamentally, it would deny thousands of the most vulnerable people on the planet, including women and children, the ability to escape violent conflict.
There is an alternative. Recent research, which followed refugees relocated to Colorado over four years, indicates that refugees who develop connections and friendships outside of their families and ethnic communities are more likely to assimilate and assimilate more quickly.
So, if you share Speaker Knudsen’s concerns, act in a way that does not simultaneously close the door on people fleeing war. Be neighborly. Volunteer. Donate. Help the many good organizations that work with refugees to ensure they become a part of America’s weave rather than a stray strand. The organizations that will be working to assist refugees in Montana include Soft Landing Missoula (http://softlandingmissoula.org/) and the International Rescue Committee (www.rescue.org). They could use your help.
As individuals, as Montanans, we can join in a grand American tradition, which has helped 3 million refugees escape violence since 1975. We can actively assist refugees to overcome the trauma of war, adapt to life in a new and alien environment, and, ultimately, flourish as new members of the American project.