As I predicted earlier this morning, the demagogues were out in full force today as Governor Hutchinson defended his decision to continue to accept a small number of refugees as part of a federal resettlement program.
“Each of you are leaders in your community,” Hutchinson said in testimony this morning before the legislature’s joint committee on City, County and Local Affairs. “You’ve got a choice to make. You can create fear or you can help resolve fear.” He challenged lawmakers to resolve fear with facts. It appears that some lawmakers form the governor’s party are not quite up to the challenge.
Hutchinson reviewed his reasons for declining the Trump administration’s offer of a waiver from the resettlement program:
* The Trump administration has been slashing the total number of refugees allowed nationwide, setting the cap at 18,000 for this year, the lowest level since the program began 40 years ago. Likely fewer than 50 will come into Arkansas in 2020. The relocations will only take place in Washington County, where the local municipalities of Springdale and Fayetteville have approved the program.
* The priorities for refugee resettlement have shifted “to placing a priority on those suffering religious persecution and those who have cooperated with the United States in the war against terrorism.”
* Hutchinson said that he had been briefed on the security checks for refugees in the program by the Department of Homeland Security, and expressed confidence “in the high standard of security checks and that the incoming refugees will have the community support needed to get jobs, to pay taxes, and to be assimilated into our American culture and way of life.”
* The refugees resettled to date “have been successful,” Hutchinson said, citing data that 98 percent of those resettled “become self sufficient within 90 to 100 days of arrival.”
* “Some have asked about the cost to our state,” Hutchinson said. “The simple answer is that refugees find employment, pay taxes, and the cost-benefit analysis is that it is a net plus for our state.” He cited a fiscal analysis done by the Trump administration at the president’s request found that nationwide, the net fiscal impact of the refugees — including the costs of public programs such as Medicaid — saved the federal government billions of dollars. Transition support for the refugees who resettle comes from the federal government and private donation.
Hutchinson added a human perspective to his remarks, noting that refugees were fleeing unimaginable persecution and hardship in their home countries. Hutchinson introduced several refugees in attendance at the meeting who had resettled in Arkansas, many of whom are likely only alive today thanks to the resettlement program. One, a refugee from Afghanistan, fled because he had worked for years with the U.S. authorities in Afghanistan and faced repercussions — his son was murdered because of his cooperation with the U.S.
Grandstanding right-wing lawmakers were unimpressed.
Sen. Gary Stubblefield asked for more information about “the demographics” of the refugees coming in and worried that he doesn’t recognize America anymore and foreigners coming in may be responsible (more here on Stubblefield’s remarks). He asked whether even with the intensive vetting it was at least possible that someone could “slip through.” The governor said that it was no different than people granted visas to come to the United States. “We’re a free country, we’re human beings,” he said. “While I have confidence in the vetting process, there’s never a guarantee that one of the 150 who have come here in the last couple years, one of them might violate a law of some kind. That’s always a potential.”
Stubblefield then began a soliloquy on hunger and poverty in Arkansas, and said that the public was justifiably upset that help was being provided to refugees in the state. A bit rich coming from Stubblefield, who has consistently voted against funding for programs for the poor, including Medicaid. It’s Stubblefield, not refugees, who has sought to block public benefits for Arkansas citizens. Hutchinson reiterated that the net fiscal impact for the state and the federal government was positive from the program.
Stubblefield also questioned whether refugees had really assisted the U.S. military, asking Hutchinson whether he could verify that beyond a shadow of a doubt (Hutchinson said he had verified it with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State).
Sen. Trent Garner, who previously claimed that he had “hard questions” to ask the governor, asked about refugees who were relocated to Washington County potentially going to visit other counties where they were not welcome. “There is a freedom of movement in the United States of America,” Hutchinson said. “A refugee is here legally. … The requirement is that the city where they are initially relocated to has approved.”
Garner restated the obvious — that municipalities have to approve resettlement — and said that people should call their local leaders to weigh in. “Thank God President Trump gave us another check and balance to make sure we do this properly,” Garner said, his cadence rising to a dramatic flourish. Hutchinson noted that municipalities were free to pass resolutions stating that they don’t want to accept refugees, but it would be irrelevant: The refugees are only going to be relocated to Washington County in any case.
Rep. Johnny Rye asked Hutchinson whether any refugees from the program had committed an act of terrorism (answer: no); Sen. Terry Rice said that he wanted to help people but “there’s concern” and complained that he hadn’t been given enough time on the issue.
After 45 minutes of remarks and questions, Hutchinson left, saying that he had another engagement.
Sen. Bob Ballinger complained that this did not leave enough time for grandstanding:
In closing his prepared statement, Hutchinson told the legislature:
America was founded by immigrants. Through the years, they have fought to preserve our freedom and make our country the greatest country on earth. Arkansas is a welcoming state. We have benefited from Vietnamese refugees who fled communism in a war-torn country. Wherever they come from, we benefit from their energy, devotion to freedom, and we want them to be a part of the fabric our nation, our future, and our state. If we say no to them, then we lose the talent, entrepreneurship, and humanity of those who love America.