Concern clashes with compassion at Missoula refugee resettlement forum

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Mary Poole, founder of Soft Landing Missoula, stands with refugee resettlement critic Jim Buterbaugh and Wilmot Collins – an African refugee-turned U.S. citizen – during a public forum hosted by the City Club on Monday. Steve Fetveit, far left, moderated the discussion. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

An outspoken critic of opening a refugee resettlement office in Missoula called upon the federal government to shut down sanctuary cities and deport illegal immigrants living on welfare during a public forum Monday.

Jim Buterbaugh, a Whitehall resident, said he was opposed to ongoing efforts to reestablish the local resettlement office, which helped dozens of refugees make a new start in Missoula over a 29-year period before closing in 2008.

“It’s not a matter of fear, it’s a matter of our nation’s security,” Buterbaugh said. “You can go online and read all kinds of different things about this. You can even go onto someone’s Facebook page in Minneapolis and see what they have to say.”

Butterbaugh spoke alongside Mary Poole, the founder of an organization looking to bring a small number of refugees to Missoula, and Wilmot Collins, an African refugee-turned U.S. Citizen who endured a lengthy vetting process before landing in Montana.

Poole’s organization, known as Soft Landing, is now working with the International Rescue Committee and the U.S. State Department to reopen the Missoula office. It would accept up to 100 global refugees a year – not just Syrians as suggested by some critics.

Poole, the organization’s founder, said Missoula was home to a resettlement office from 1979 to 2008. During those 29 years, it helped Hmong and eastern European refugees make a new start.

“Soft Landing is trying to reopen an office in Missoula that would resettle people from around the world,” Poole said. “It’s highly unlikely we’d get people in this office from Syria. We have a strong history of successful refugee resettlement, and Missoulians have shown interest by the hundreds.”

Last month, nearly 1,000 people marched through downtown Missoula to counter several smaller anti-refugee rallies. Poole addressed the myths surrounding the local effort and spoke to the vetting process in place at the federal level.

Of the 60 million people worldwide who are currently displaced by conflict, roughly 19.5 million are registered as refugees with the United Nations. Of those, Poole said, 1 percent are seeking placement in a foreign country.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about who actually qualifies as a refugee, and who actually qualifies to come to the U.S.,” Poole said. “The only people who are qualified to come to the U.S. are those who registered with the U.N.”

The State Department defines a refugee as someone who has fled his or her home country due to a founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality or political thought.

The U.S has committed to welcoming 85,000 global refugees this fiscal year, with Syrian refugees capped at 10,000. Canada recently met its target of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees into the country.

Poole said IRC would serve any refugees received in Missoula. Soft Landing would help fill any gaps, such as job placement and assisting public schools with language needs. She called it a public-private partnership and said it has worked well in other locations.

“Soft Landing has made an enormous effort to reach out to community stakeholders, organizations and facilities,” she said. “The program is specifically focused for rapid integration, securing jobs and really getting people integrated into our city.”

Collins, who left Liberia with his wife during the nation’s bloody civil war, also addressed the vetting process. He described his flight into Ghana and his family’s eventual migration to the U.S.

He said the vetting process took him nearly three years to complete.

“Don’t let anyone fool you – that process is intense and vigorously detailed,” Collins said. “When we do not have the information we need, we will stick to what we have – the fear. The unknown is what frightens people.”

The forum included a series of group questions posed by the audience. Poole said Soft Landing was working to reach out to critics of the proposal in an effort to build consensus.

“It has always been a process of how we can do this together,” Poole said. “I continue to learn about the fears of the other side and how we might be able to ease some of those fears and work together to make it happen.”

Buterbaugh said he was skeptical.

“I understand the passion (Poole) has for this, and many people have for this,” he said. “I’m also trying to get across the passion of what this country is meant to be. We’ll see what happens.”

“We’re filling up,” he added. “We have problems with what we got.”