The national debate about whether or not to welcome refugees from the war-torn Middle East was hashed out again in Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate. In Twin Falls, Idaho, conservative activists are not just talking about the issue, they're taking action.
An initiative campaign has collected more than one-third of the needed signatures to force a public vote on refugee resettlement.
The proposed local ballot measure would make refugee centers illegal in Twin Falls County. There's one in operation now, overseen by the College of Southern Idaho.
Initiative sponsor Rick Martin has been involved in Republican politics for years. He said he was moved into action by the prospect that Syrians might be resettled in the area.
"There's a very serious concern that rebels and ISIS fighters could utilize this refugee program to get into the country and cause havoc, just like we’ve seen in Paris and San Bernardino,” Martin said.
He said those attacks have given his campaign momentum. The backgrounds of some of the Paris terrorists are still being investigated. The attackers in San Bernardino were not refugees.
Martin's initiative also paints refugee resettlement as an unaffordable burden on taxpayers.
"I just feel we're maxed out,” he said.
He also believes it’s part of a leftist plan to alter the demographics of America.
"I believe that's really what they want to do,” Martin said. “They're trying to change America more into a Middle Eastern-style nation.”
Roadside signature gathering
Martin can regularly be found beside the busiest road through Twin Falls. He holds a big sign that reads, "End Refugee Resettlement Sign Petition Here." Some passing cars honk. Every few minutes one pulls over and Martin makes his pitch.
"By signing this petition, you’re saying you want the people to be able to vote on the refugee center: Yes to ban it. No to keep it. I'm for banning,” Martin said.
Jeff and Joyce Devey of Twin Falls signed and said they're fed up.
"We've got enough problems in this country without bringing in more problems,” Jeff said. "We can't even take care of our own people."
"I believe the county will vote to close the refugee center,” Joyce added. “I hope and pray that's what happens."
“I want us to be safe and prosperous,” explained another person who stopped to sign, Marie Christopherson of Buhl.
The unusual strategy of seeking a popular vote on refugee resettlement has drawn national attention. The editor of a blog called Refugee Resettlement Watch hailed Martin's group -- the Committee to End the CSI Refugee Center -- as a “pocket of resistance.”
'We like being a part of this'
Around the same time, the Southern Poverty Law Center profiled the Twin Falls campaign under the heading "Hatewatch."
Locally, the petition drive is drawing push back.
"I couldn't even believe that these people are starting to talk about how horrible it is, and how they're afraid and it's a danger,” accountant and Democratic state senate candidate Deborah Silver said.
She founded a group called Magic Valley Refugee Advocates to be "a counterpoint."
"Our community is standing up and saying, 'No, this has gone well,’” Silver said. “We like having the refugee center. We like being a part of this. This helps us in our Christian faith.”
Silver was among the more than 300 people who attended a Christmas party at the Lighthouse Church in Twin Falls last week to make refugees from Africa, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Burma feel welcome. Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus even came and were introduced in English and Arabic.
CSI Refugee Center director Zeze Rwasama said the controversy about Muslims and resettlement has prompted a surge of donations and volunteers unlike any the center has seen in more than 30 years in Twin Falls. He has confidence in the combined screening of refugees by the FBI, the State Department and Homeland Security.
“I only resettle refugees that are vetted through the process,” Rwasama said. “Which country, I don’t have a choice. They are all human beings like me and you. They all deserve opportunities that we are enjoying in the U.S. In fact, the U.S. was founded by people that were trying to escape persecution. There is no difference today.”
The initiative to ban refugee centers needs just shy of 4,000 valid voter signatures by the beginning of April to get on the 2016 county ballot -- either in May or November. Martin said the campaign has more than 1,500 names after two months of petitioning. A legal challenge from opponents is likely if it qualifies for the ballot.
‘Unconstitutional, illegal, unenforceable’
In an interview with public radio, Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said he thinks the refugee ballot measure is fatally flawed.
"The U.S. Constitution declares that immigration issues -- under which this falls -- are exclusively within the purview of the federal government," Loebs said. "Only the federal government has the right under the U.S. Constitution to legislate in this area."
Loebs acknowledged he does not have the authority to prevent an initiative from appearing on the ballot even if, as in this case, he thinks the measure is "unconstitutional, illegal, unenforceable and will be without any effect whatsoever."
Martin responded that his committee revised the initiative text after seeing Loebs' initial objections. He said he strove to avoid a federal conflict by declaring refugee centers to be a "public nuisance." Martin said a county's "police powers" allow it ban nuisances.
The unswayed county prosecutor said it is legitimate to question the admission of refugees from terror hotbeds, but he contended the legal way for local and state governments to address that is through a resolution or similar statement directed to the federal level.
More ballot campaigns and resolutions
A recently formed group in Idaho's most populous county, Treasure Valley Citizens To End Refugee Resettlement, is pressing the Ada County Commission to put an advisory vote on the May 2016 ballot. The group proposed that voters in Boise and the surrounding county be asked if they want refugee resettlement in the area to continue or end.
At the beginning of December, Bonner County Commissioners unanimously adopted a non-binding resolution urging Idaho Governor Butch Otter to ask President Barack Obama to halt the resettlement of new refugees from Syria until their vetting is "fully reviewed and all of the states' concerns are addressed."
The county commission in neighboring Boundary County, Idaho, is considering its own resolution to express opposition to any resettlement of Middle Eastern refugees inside its borders.
On Monday, the Seattle City Council also dipped into the issue of Muslims and refugees, but took a different tack. It passed a resolution rejecting "anti-Muslim rhetoric." Seattle's resolution stated that immigrants and refugees "add enormous value to the economic and cultural life of our nation."
“Our community has very low unemployment,” Silver observed back in Twin Falls. “The refugees here have jobs - almost all of them -- within two to four months.”
Martin contended that the steady influx of migrants suppresses wages locally.
Rwasama said no Syrian refugees have been sent to Twin Falls for resettlement and as of early December, none of the upcoming scheduled arrivals hail from Syria either. In fiscal year 2015, which ended on September 30, the U.S. State Department reported 35 refugees from Syria arrived in Idaho overall. While a small number, that is more than any bordering state including more populous Washington, which received 25 refugees from Syria in the past year.
Martin said he would like President Obama to press harder for a ceasefire in the Syrian civil war. He said he agrees with several of the Republican presidential candidates who favor increasing support to Syria's neighbors to maintain refugee camps in the Middle East to position the refugees to eventually rebuild their home country.
The proposed ballot measure in Twin Falls County would not preclude private parties such as families or churches from sponsoring the resettlement of individual refugees in the county.
The CSI Refugee Center takes in around 250-275 new refugees per year from all over the world. Rwasama said he cannot imagine that a terrorist would use the refugee resettlement program to infiltrate the U.S. given the long wait time in overseas refugee camps and constant scrutiny.