‘We value these peo­ple’

Trump gave states the power to ban refugees. Con­ser­va­tive Utah wants more of them.

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY GRIFF WITTE

salt lake city — Apiel Kuot had sur­vived war, sex­ual as­sault and life — first as an or­phan, then as a sin­gle mother — in an east African refugee camp. But Utah ter­ri­fied her.

She would never be wel­come there, oth­ers in the camp had told her when she learned she would be re­set­tled 9,000 miles away in a place where her black skin could mark her as an un­wanted out­sider. White peo­ple, she was warned, would try to steal her young chil­dren.

“I was so scared,” the 28-yearold re­counted. Then she laughed. Three years on from her ar­rival, “life is beau­ti­ful. Utah is a won­der­ful place, the best place in the world for me.”

The ad­mi­ra­tion is ap­par­ently mu­tual.

This fall, Pres­i­dent Trump signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der that, for the first time, gives states and cities the au­thor­ity to veto refugee re­set­tle­ments. The move alarms refugee ad­vo­cates, who fear a wave of xeno­pho­bic dem­a­goguery as gov­er­nors and may­ors seek to prove their an­ti­im­mi­grant cre­den­tials by ban­ning new ar­rivals.

That still may hap­pen, adding to the strain on a once world­class re­set­tle­ment pro­gram that has been crip­pled by cuts since Trump took of­fice.

But in Utah — deeply con­ser­va­tive, deeply de­vout, pre­dom­i­nantly white Utah — the re­sponse has been al­to­gether dif­fer­ent. The gov­er­nor, a Repub­li­can who aligns with Trump on most is­sues, wrote the pres­i­dent a let­ter in late Oc­to­ber.

He didn’t want to keep refugees out. He didn’t want to re­duce their num­bers. He wanted Trump to send more.

“We em­pathize deeply with in­di­vid­u­als and groups who have been forced from their homes and we love giv­ing them a new home and a new life,” Gov. Gary R. Her­bert wrote. Such new­com­ers, he added, have be­come “pro­duc­tive em­ploy­ees and re­spon­si­ble ci­ti­zens.” They have been an as­set to Utah, he

said, not a li­a­bil­ity.

Repub­li­cans in the state leg­is­la­ture quickly backed up their gov­er­nor, dar­ing to defy a pres­i­dent who has re­peat­edly shown an un­will­ing­ness to tol­er­ate in­tra­party dis­sent. So did Repub­li­can mem­bers of the state’s con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion. So did Repub­li­cans in city halls. Democrats across Utah added their sup­port.

“I have to be hon­est: I don’t have any idea why it’s a par­ti­san is­sue na­tion­ally. It’s never been one here,” said Brad Wil­son, the state’s Repub­li­can speaker of the House. “Re­gard­less of po­lit­i­cal party, we value these peo­ple.”

Un­til re­cently, that was true for the United States as a whole. Lead­ing the world in pro­vid­ing refuge to peo­ple flee­ing war or op­pres­sion was long a source of bi­par­ti­san pride. From Ron­ald Rea­gan to Barack Obama, ev­ery pres­i­dent in re­cent decades had sought to bol­ster the pro­gram, iden­ti­fy­ing it as a way to gen­er­ate good­will and pres­tige in­ter­na­tion­ally while strength­en­ing bonds in com­mu­ni­ties at home.

But not Trump. The pres­i­dent in Septem­ber cut the an­nual num­ber of new ar­rivals to a max­i­mum of 18,000, a record low. He has re­peat­edly at­tacked refugees, sug­gest­ing they may be a “Tro­jan horse” in­tent on vi­o­lence or a Mus­lim takeover. At an Oc­to­ber rally in Min­nesota, his sup­port­ers booed his men­tion of So­mali refugees, then cheered when the pres­i­dent an­nounced he had given states and cities the chance to block them from mov­ing in.

“Be­lieve me, no other pres­i­dent would be do­ing that,” Trump de­clared.

Yet as Utah’s re­sponse shows, there may be lim­its to how far even a Repub­li­can state and lo­cal of­fice­hold­ers are will­ing to go in fol­low­ing Trump’s na­tivist brand of pol­i­tics. While many in Utah sup­port the pres­i­dent’s at­tempts to crack down on un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, they draw a line at his stance to­ward peo­ple who have come to the United States legally af­ter wait­ing their turn and un­der­go­ing thor­ough vet­ting.

Since Septem­ber, when Trump au­tho­rized the veto, re­ac­tions from state capi­tols and city halls have been more hos­pitable to­ward refugees than hos­tile.

Some lead­ers, such as the Repub­li­can gov­er­nor of North Dakota, have af­firmed their states want to con­tinue re­ceiv­ing refugees as long as mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties agree. Oth­ers, such as the Demo­cratic gov­er­nor of the swing state of Colorado, have said they will wel­come any refugees that other states re­ject.

Only four years ago, in the wake of ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Europe that came amid a his­tor­i­cally large in­flux of asy­lum seek­ers, 31 gov­er­nors said they were op­posed to al­low­ing in Syr­i­ans ask­ing for refuge.

This time, no gov­er­nor or ma­jor city leader has taken Trump up on the of­fer to en­act a ban — at least not yet. (Of­fi­cials have un­til June to de­cide.)

Refugee ad­vo­cates say the early re­sponses re­flect a soft­en­ing of at­ti­tudes lo­cally that is not al­ways re­flected in the hard-line stances of Trump or the hy­per­par­ti­san war­fare of Wash­ing­ton.

“At the state level, it’s turn­ing,” said Nazanin Ash, vice pres­i­dent of global pol­icy at the In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee (IRC). “There’s a def­i­nite move­ment to­ward em­brac­ing refugees.”

In Utah, the em­brace is noth­ing new. The state’s 3 mil­lion­strong pop­u­la­tion is nearly 90 per­cent white, and it reli­ably goes Repub­li­can, with vot­ers gen­er­ally fa­vor­ing the party’s poli­cies on abor­tion, taxes and gun rights. Utah last sided with the Demo­crat in a pres­i­den­tial con­test more than half a cen­tury ago.

But the state is con­sid­er­ably less en­am­ored of Trump than its Gop-lov­ing rep­u­ta­tion would sug­gest. In 2016, he won less than half the vote. Nearly a quar­ter of Utahns opted for na­tive son Evan Mc­mullin, a self-de­scribed “in­de­pen­dent con­ser­va­tive” who had once worked at the United Na­tions’ refugee agency and who urged the United States not to close its bor­ders to those most in need.

Utah’s pop­u­la­tion in­cludes about 60,000 refugees, hail­ing from places such as So­ma­lia, Congo, Syria, Iraq and Viet­nam. Un­der Trump, the num­ber of new ar­rivals has dropped pre­cip­i­tously, from 1,245 in 2016 to 421 last year. Still, Utah punches well above its weight, tak­ing in more peo­ple per capita than large states such as Cal­i­for­nia, Texas and New York.

When ha­tred to­ward refugees is run­ning high else­where in the United States, it is not un­usual for em­ploy­ees ar­riv­ing at the IRC’S Salt Lake City of­fice to find it has been tagged overnight not with slurs but with hearts and mes­sages of af­fir­ma­tion.

“We don’t even know who’s do­ing it,” said ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Natalie El-deiry.

When the gov­er­nor spoke out force­fully in de­fense of refugees, and against Trump’s cuts, no one was sur­prised. Jackie Biskup­ski, the Demo­cratic mayor of Salt Lake City, said there are many is­sues on which she and the gov­er­nor dis­agree. But refugees are not among them.

“It’s not a par­ti­san is­sue in Utah,” said Biskup­ski, whose city of 200,000 is at the heart of a metro area that is the land­ing spot for most of the refugees who come to Utah. “I’m very grate­ful and proud of that.”

Biskup­ski, who has three refugees on her staff at city hall, said there are many rea­sons sup­port in Utah is nearly univer­sal.

The state’s roar­ing econ­omy gen­er­ates a con­stant de­mand for new work­ers that refugees help to meet. There are well-funded sys­tems that pro­vide job train­ing, lan­guage in­struc­tion and other sup­port to refugees to en­sure a suc­cess­ful in­te­gra­tion. And the di­ver­sity that refugees bring is wel­comed, adding vi­tal­ity and va­ri­ety to the state’s arts and cul­tural scene.

Biskup­ski said it is also im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore the in­flu­ence of the Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter­day Saints (LDS).

Nearly two-thirds of the state is Mor­mon. The group traces its pres­ence in the ter­ri­tory that be­came mod­ern Utah to a mid-19th­cen­tury flight from per­se­cu­tion in the east­ern United States. That his­tory helps shape its ap­proach to refugees.

“It’s in the DNA of a lot of the res­i­dents of Utah, hav­ing pi­o­neer fore­fa­thers who were driven from their homes be­cause of their re­li­gious be­liefs,” said Rick Fos­ter, who man­ages the church’s global net­work of wel­fare op­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing sup­port for refugees. “There’s an acute sen­si­tiv­ity to in­di­vid­u­als who are suf­fer­ing a sim­i­lar plight.”

Of course, es­capes from per­se­cu­tion are a com­mon thread in the ances­try of many Amer­i­cans, from the Mayflower on down. But the Mor­mons make that nar­ra­tive cen­tral to their teach­ings and con­nect it di­rectly to the strug­gles of those seek­ing pro­tec­tion to­day.

Church lead­ers em­pha­size that refugees of all back­grounds are wel­come — a de­par­ture from racist church poli­cies of the re­cent past, in­clud­ing a ban on blacks in the priest­hood that did not end un­til 1978.

The high per­cent­age of young Mor­mons who per­form mis­sion­ary work abroad plays a role, as well. Utah may be land­locked, far from any in­ter­na­tional border. But its pop­u­la­tion has a com­fort and fa­mil­iar­ity with for­eign cul­tures.

“You walk down the street in Provo and you can ask peo­ple whether they speak a sec­ond lan­guage,” said Rep. John Cur­tis (RU­tah), a mem­ber of the Mor­mon church. “Ninety per­cent of them will say yes.”

When Trump slashed refugee ad­mit­tance num­bers, which had peaked un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion at 110,000 an­nu­ally, Cur­tis was among a small mi­nor­ity of Repub­li­can mem­bers of Congress who wrote to the pres­i­dent to ob­ject.

Cur­tis said he did not re­ceive a re­sponse from the White House. The gov­er­nor’s of­fice de­clined to com­ment on its com­mu­ni­ca­tions with the White House in re­sponse to Her­bert’s let­ter. But in the past, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has de­fended its refugee cuts, say­ing they were nec­es­sary to fo­cus at­ten­tion on asy­lum seek­ers ar­riv­ing at the Mex­i­can border.

Cur­tis did not sup­port Trump in 2016, opt­ing for a write-in can­di­date in­stead. But he has voted with the pres­i­dent about 95 per­cent of the time in Congress. In an in­ter­view, he said he “re­grets” that the refugee is­sue has be­come politi­cized while de­clin­ing to crit­i­cize Trump for his part. “I’m not go­ing to go down that rab­bit hole,” he said. Oth­ers are more blunt.

“The ad­min­is­tra­tion is try­ing to cre­ate di­vi­sion where none ex­isted,” Aden Batar said.

Batar is the 52-year-old di­rec­tor of the refugee pro­gram at Catholic Com­mu­nity Ser­vices of Utah, one of two or­ga­ni­za­tions, along with the IRC, that re­set­tles new ar­rivals. He is also a refugee from So­ma­lia who has raised four chil­dren in Utah af­ter mov­ing there a quar­ter-cen­tury ago.

“I’m a Mus­lim, but re­li­gion doesn’t di­vide us,” Batar said. “Catholics, Mus­lims, Jews, LDS. You name it, ev­ery re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tion here is help­ing refuges.”

When Batar was re­set­tled in the small city of Lo­gan, more than an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City, “there was no one who looked like me,” he said. “But no matter where you go in Utah, the com­mu­nity is very wel­com­ing, very ac­cept­ing.”

The politi­cians back up that at­ti­tude with funds and poli­cies de­signed to al­low smooth re­set­tle­ments.

Un­like in states where refugees get only a few months of sup­port, new ar­rivals in Utah have a case man­ager who helps guide them for two years. When refugees take their driver’s li­cense test, an in­ter­preter can come along for the ride. A state-run train­ing cen­ter links new ar­rivals with avail­able jobs and helps them boost their skills — ev­ery­thing from cook­ing to cod­ing.

“My goal is not to put peo­ple into low-wage, dead-end jobs. It’s to put them on a ca­reer path,” said Asha Parekh, di­rec­tor of the state­funded Utah Refugee Ser­vices Of­fice. Since the train­ing cen­ter opened four years ago, the av­er­age wage for refugees in the state has risen from around $8 an hour to over $12, with grad­u­ates find­ing work in fields such as in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and man­u­fac­tur­ing. A half-dozen re­cent ar­rivals are in train­ing to join the po­lice force.

But the state’s sup­port can do only so much when the White House’s cuts run so deep.

Parekh said that she now has far more em­ploy­ers look­ing for work­ers than there are refugees to fill those jobs.

Batar has had to down­size his staff in re­cent years as the num­ber of new ar­rivals in Utah has fallen. The gov­er­nor’s re­quest not­with­stand­ing, next year’s to­tal could be even lower given the re­duced fed­eral cap. That is even as the num­ber of peo­ple forcibly dis­placed from their homes world­wide climbs higher, to more than 70 mil­lion.

When Batar scans the sched­ule of up­com­ing ar­rivals, it is mostly a blank slate.

“We have the ca­pac­ity — the vol­un­teers, the jobs, the do­na­tions, the hous­ing. We don’t have any short­age of re­sources,” he said. “We just don’t have the refugees.”

For some re­cent ar­rivals hop­ing to re­unite with rel­a­tives wait­ing for their turn to come to the United States, that has been dev­as­tat­ing.

Hal­imo Ahmed Has­san, 50, had to leave her son be­hind when she fled her na­tive So­ma­lia and, in 2014, came to the United States. She said he had been vet­ted to join her by the time Trump took of­fice. But the pres­i­dent’s de­ci­sion to im­ple­ment a travel ban on peo­ple from So­ma­lia, as well as six other na­tions, scut­tled those plans.

Now, with so many peo­ple in line for so few re­set­tle­ment slots, Has­san has no idea when she and her son, now 16, will be to­gether again.

“I think about him all the time,” said Has­san, wip­ing away tears with the hem of her pink hi­jab. “All the other peo­ple in Amer­ica have helped me. I don’t know why the pres­i­dent isn’t help­ing.”

“We love giv­ing them a new home and a new life.”

Utah Gov. Gary R. Her­bert (R), in a let­ter to Pres­i­dent Trump about lim­its to refugees al­lowed in the United States


Apiel Kuot, a 28-year-old refugee from what is now South Su­dan, at home with her chil­dren last month in Mid­vale, Utah. She calls the state “the best place in the world for me.” Utah’s pop­u­la­tion in­cludes about 60,000 refugees, hail­ing from a va­ri­ety of coun­tries.


TOP: Refugees Noella Mapendo, left, and Ardo Ab­di­lahi work on the assem­bly line mak­ing fur­ni­ture last month at De­seret In­dus­tries Man­u­fac­tur­ing in Salt Lake City. ABOVE RIGHT: So­mali refugee Hal­imo Ahmed Has­san at her friend’s home in Salt Lake City. She is try­ing to bring her son over from So­ma­lia. ABOVE LEFT: From left, Katy Diaz Jimenez, Yoani Per­alta and Sriya Govipala talk with in­struc­tor Craig Johnson dur­ing a cit­i­zen­ship class at the Refugee Ed­u­ca­tion and Train­ing Cen­ter in Salt Lake City.

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