BOISE — Gov C.L. “Butch” Otter on Tuesday defended the idea that Christians fleeing persecution should be given preference in entering the United States over other refugees, while challenging the idea that such a policy would be discriminatory.
“That’s how I felt it was, it was a preference for those who were being beheaded, those who were being drowned in cages, and those who refuse to go with Shariah law, strict Shariah law,” Otter said at his yearly breakfast with the Idaho Press Club. “I think when you see a particular group being targeted for genocide, you have to protect the ones you can.”
Otter said during an interview on the weekly news show “Idaho Reports” that aired on Friday that he believes preference should be given to Christian refugees over others. Responding to a question from interviewer Idaho Reports co-host Melissa Davlin, Otter acknowledged such a policy would be discriminatory but said it was needed to keep America safe.
Otter walked back the statement Tuesday, saying he should have used the word “preference” rather than “discrimination,” and argued that what he was suggesting wasn’t any different from some past policies.
“We’re talking about preference here, which the United States has always done,” Otter said. “The United States has always made preference for people who are in peril.”
President Donald Trump made tighter immigration laws a main theme of his campaign, and frequently argued against accepting Syrian refugees, painting Muslim refugees in particular as a security risk. Trump signed an executive order Jan. 27 banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries for three months, putting a four-month hold on refugee resettlement and suspending accepting Syrian refugees indefinitely. The order and subsequent statements from the president also indicate that, after the four-month freeze is lifted, Christians and other non-Muslim refugees coming from the Middle East will get preference over Muslims. The order is being challenged in court now.
After the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, Otter called for a halt to refugee resettlement until the vetting process could be improved. He said Tuesday that his concern is ensuring the vetting process screens out people who want to harm America, and that he doesn’t think Christians should be subject to less screening than other groups.
“It was the vetting process,” he said. “It wasn’t the people coming in. It wasn’t the places they were coming from.”
Otter spent much of the breakfast talking about the future of the Affordable Care Act and health care policy. Republicans have declared their intent to repeal the ACA, but exactly what would be repealed, what left in place and what it would be replaced with are all very much in the air.
Otter was in Washington, D.C., late last month for Trump’s inauguration, and he was one of a number of Republican governors who met with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to discuss the ACA’s repeal. The main theme that came out of these discussions, Otter said, is that the states want more flexibility — one popular idea, he said, was to allow states to use identical waivers without having to start from scratch on the application process.
“I want flexibility,” he said. “I want us to be able to model whatever they come up with to fit Idaho.”
Otter said he doesn’t see much for the state Legislature to do on health care, though, unless something passes at the federal level, giving them something to frame policy around. He didn’t rule out calling a special session if a major health care overhaul passes after the session ends, but it would depend on what it could accomplish.
“I’m not going to call a special session if we’re not going to succeed with it,” he said.
Otter also praised the state exchange Your Health Idaho. Idaho is one of just a few Republican-run states that created its own exchange under the ACA; most use the federal marketplace. Otter backed the exchange’s creation, arguing it would give the state more control, while many more conservative Republicans opposed it. Most people on the exchange pay for their insurance with federal tax credits. It remains to be seen whether these would continue if the ACA is repealed.
“Things are working pretty well here in Idaho, especially with the exchange,” Otter said.
Responding to a question about a bill that was introduced a week ago to take state money away from cities that don’t comply with federal immigration law, Otter said the measure probably isn’t necessary — there aren’t any sanctuary cities in Idaho now — “but the Legislature can do what the Legislature wants to do.”
“And who would vote against it?” Otter added, saying a vote against it would be perceived as a vote in favor of sanctuary cities.
“People in Idaho respect and count on the rule of law,” he said. “Even if it’s a federal law that I don’t like, I’m obliged to enforce it. I’m obliged to obey it. And there are a lot of those.”