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“We’re all children of immigrants:” Missoula County consents to refugee resettlement

Posted at 2:59 PM, Dec 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-19 16:59:42-05

With the urging of local businesses, faith leaders and members of the community, Missoula County commissioners on Wednesday signed a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stating their consent to the resettlement of refugees within the county.

The consent of both state and local elected officials is now required under an executive order issued in September by the Trump administration. Gov. Steve Bullock and Missoula Mayor John Engen have already consented to resettlement in Missoula.

“Missoula has been a highly supportive environment for refugees,” said Jen Barile, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Missoula. “In turn, our new community members have contributed economically, socially and culturally to our city.”

The IRC is one of nine refugee resettlement programs operating in the U.S., and each must win state and local permission to continue their work at the local level. That could force a number of offices to close, especially as the Trump administration slashes the national quota for new admissions to historic lows.

But in Missoula, support for the program has only grown since 2016, when more than a 1,000 advocates marched through the city’s streets to support resettlement. The IRC reopened its Missoula office shortly after and has since resettled 343 individual refugees to the city, primarily from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Iraq and Eritrea.

Nolasque Balitebya, a refugee from the Congo, thanked advocates for their support during Wednesday’s hearing.

“Thank you so much for the new culture – the culture of accepting refugees into your country,” said Balitebya. “The lack of peace in our respective countries made us fear. After spending so many years in a second country, we are finally in the U.S.A., and precisely in Missoula. You Missoulians are very hospitable.”

Pastor-Daniel-Dish-350x233.jpg<div class="Figure-credit" itemprop="author">Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
Paster Daniel Dish reads from scripture while lending support for Missoula’s refugee resettlement program, saying it enjoys the overwhelming support of the city’s faith community.

Along with the executive order, the Trump administration has slashed the number of refugees who will be admitted into the U.S. in the 2020 fiscal year to just 18,000.

The average number of annual admissions since the program began in 1980 under the Refugee Act was 95,000. It rose to 110,000 under the Obama administration, but was cut to 85,000 in Trump’s first year.

The president’s latest cap of 18,000 marks a historic low, even as the economic output of the refugee population grows.

“It was this administration’s own report that showed that over a decade, refugees generated $63 billion more in revenue for federal, state and local governments than the U.S. spent on welcoming them,” said Barile. “They contribute meaningfully to our economy as taxpayers and consumers, they create jobs as entrepreneurs, and they play a critical role in the labor force.”

Several Missoula business owners supported that claim, including a number of restaurateurs who have welcomed refugees into their workforce.

Theo Smith, owner of Masala, said many restaurants are struggling to find labor.

“Low unemployment rates have driven both a local and national decline in restaurant staff,” said Smith. “Masala has been affected by these trends. It’s been the incoming refugees here in Missoula that have turned our labor problems around.”

Smith said half of his staff of 13 employees is now comprised of refugees, and they’ve proved model employees. Julie and Taylor Clayton, owners of Basal, offered a similar sentiment, saying one of their Syrian employees has emerged as a role model.

“We really can’t say enough about how impactful she’s been on our business,” said Taylor Clayton. “As we look to the future and look toward growth, and how we’re going to achieve some of the goals we’ve set for ourselves as business owners, our plan now fundamentally includes refugees, purely based on their work ethic and character.”

Others praised the resettlement program for bringing diversity to the community, both racially and culturally.

Mirtha Becerra, an immigrant to the U.S. who now sits on the Missoula City Council, said the federal government’s historically low immigration quotas shouldn’t deter the city from helping those in need.

Missoula-County-commissioners-700x467.jpg<div class="Figure-credit" itemprop="author">Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
Missoula County commissioners, including Dave Strohmaier, center, listen to public comment during Wednesday’s hearing.

“It should not prevent us from opening our community to the many families desperately searching for a place to call home and raise their families,” said Becerra. “As an immigrant myself, I understand the difficulties associated with leaving one’s home and the importance of living in a community that welcomes a foreigner.”

Missoula County commissioners unanimously praised the IRC and the lives it has changed. No one spoke against their letter of consent on Wednesday, though roughly 25 people attended what’s typically a mundane administrative meeting to lend support.

Commissioners held the hearing in the newly christened Sophie Moiese Room. Moiese was a respected elder with the Salish Tribe, which once occupied what’s now Missoula before the arrival of European settlers.

“Unless you can trace your lineage back to Sophie and her people, or some other indigenous folks, you’re an immigrant,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “We’re all children of immigrants, and all our relations came here fleeing someplace else. If you have any doubt about the contribution of immigrants, look around you.”