Tempers momentarily flared Monday at a Missoula rally against a proposal to open a refugee resettlement office in Missoula.
The effort to bring a refugee resettlement office to Missoula is being led by a group called Soft Landing Missoula. One of its founders, Mary Poole, says she was moved last fall by stories of Syrian war refugees’ search for a new home.
"We romantically thought ‘what if we could bring Syrian refugees here?’ We very quickly learned that isn’t how the system works. If you have a resettlement agency it becomes available to any refugee in the world. That was really attractive to us, because a person in need is a person in need. We didn’t feel the need to say we only want to help this one group," Poole said.
Opening a resettlement office is not easy and supporters are only in the exploratory phases.
The Montana chapter of a national non-profit group called ACT for America hopes it doesn’t get any further than that. That’s the group that sponsored the ‘American Security Rally’ on the Missoula County Courthouse lawn. ACT for America says it works to promote national security and defeat terrorism.
Tim Ravendal of Townsend is a member.
"We’re here because we truly believe that the local elected officials here in Missoula have failed to take into account the full story and full picture of the refugee situation here in Montana."
Ravendal says accepting hundreds of new refugees in Montana would pressure our already-stressed health care and social services systems.
"It’s been overburdened many years now, and adding more people to that causes infrastructure problems."
Opponents also say there are currently few ways to distinguish legitimate war refugees from Middle Eastern terrorists who mean to harm the United States.
"All it takes is one bad apple to come in from that 100-per year, leave the city limits of Missoula and cause me – personally – problems in Townsend. There’s no assurances that we can have that security," Ravendal said.
Soft Landing Missoula’s Mary Poole says there’s always room for improvement, but America’s refugee-vetting protocols are much more stringent than Europe’s.
"If you look at the track record of refugees brought to America you can very quickly see there have been no acts of terrorism on American soil in the decades refugees have been coming to America."
The Montana Human Rights Network issued a press release today characterizing Missoula’s refugee support effort as ‘active and thoughtful’. It also described the rally protesters as right-wing extremists and says ACT for America is an anti-Muslim organization; a portrayal that came as no surprise to Carol Nelson of Bigfork.
"I would say that’s totally expected. That’s their talking point, that’s what they always say. They’re liberals," Nelson said.
It looked like 60 to 80 people attended Monday’s rally. The crowd grew and shrunk throughout the chilly morning. Most of those in front of the courthouse clearly opposed creation of a Missoula refugee resettlement office. Although a handful came to protest the protestors, like Crystal Two Bulls.
"People are acting out of fear right now as opposed to acting just out of being just a decent human being with a heart," Two Bulls said.
But supporters of the ‘American Security Rally’ say that’s exactly what motivates them – the safety and security of their fellow Americans.