TWIN FALLS | Most of the area's state lawmakers say they're getting plenty of constituent feedback on the College of Southern Idaho's refugee center, even though they don't have much power over what happens with the federally funded program.
“We can use our influence in the best way we can, but as far as being able to do something about the program or with the program, it’s out of my purview,” said Rep. Clark Kauffman, R-Filer.
The people Kauffman has heard from are pretty evenly split on the virtues of the center, he said, so he's trying to learn as much as he can about it.
“There are two stories, on opposite ends of the spectrum, as you can imagine,” he said. “I think maybe there’s some misinformation on both ends of it. I’m trying to find the truth in the middle there somewhere.”
Sen. Jim Patrick said most people who have contacted him are against the program. While some of their concerns are based on misunderstandings, the Twin Falls Republican said, “some are probably valid as well, when it comes to how (the refugees are) screened."
Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said he has been trying to stay involved, including talking to CSI President Jeff Fox and meeting with Refugee Center Director Zese Rwasama to learn more about the program. Overall, Clow said, the refugee center has done a good job.
“I don’t have the fears that others have,” Clow said. “I understand those fears. I don’t have those same fears. I think that refugees are pretty well vetted. Probably more vetted than … average people coming into the country with foreign passports. I think if terrorists want to come into our country, there’s a lot better ways than coming through the refugee program.”
CSI has run the refugee program since the 1980s, but it has become controversial since news came out that the group of 300 refugees coming in October will likely include Syrians, with some opponents fearing radical Muslims will be among the refugees.
Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said he got a good deal of feedback about a commentary he wrote that ran in the Times-News. Hartgen's piece opposed defunding the program but said the college should do more to address people's worries. Hartgen estimated about 60 percent of the people he has heard from agree with him, while 40 percent want to see the program shut down.
“The first group is quieter, and they’re intense, but they’re not vociferous,” Hartgen said. “And the second group is more vociferous. But my sense is, it represents a smaller segment of the community.”
Opponents of the center have filed a petition for a ballot initiative in May 2016 that would, if passed, ban refugee centers in Twin Falls County and give county commissioners the power to shut them down. It would be a misdemeanor to violate the ordinance, or for commissioners to try to repeal it within a year of its passage.
The petition was presented by Rick Martin of Buhl, the head of the Committee to End the CSI Refugee Center, and bears 31 signatures, many of them people who are active in the group or have publicly spoken out against the refugee program. That's enough for initial review, but they're going to need 3,842 signatures — 20 percent of the number of people who voted in the last general election in Twin Falls County — to get on the May ballot.
The college should "feather the program out" by taking fewer refugees at once, Hartgen said. While there would be some people who would still be against the center, Hartgen thinks that would help satisfy many people who have security-related concerns.
“I think that the groups that are involved in this, particularly Mr. Martin’s group, I think they are motivated by that concern,” he said. “They’re not motivated, I don’t think, by religious or racial or ethnic animosity. I think the college would be wise to respond to this situation by being cautious and prudent and transparent.”
Hartgen also said the Times-News added to the polarization with an editorial castigating Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, for his comments at an anti-refugee program meeting.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for the paper to call names of legislators who are involved in speaking out on the issue,” Hartgen said. “When the paper calls for us to take a leadership role and then, when we try to spread our views, we get critiqued for doing that and called names like ‘doofus,’ I don’t think that’s helpful.”
Many good people have come to Twin Falls through the program, Patrick said, but people might be more concerned now due to unrest in the world and terrorist threats. It will cause problems if the people who come over aren’t accepted by the community, Patrick said.
“If we can get good citizens who can blend into the community, it’s fine, there’s plenty of jobs,” he said. “But (in a) small community, you’ve got to be careful who you bring in.”
You’re going to have some criminals or terrorists in any group of people, Clow said, including in the general population. The refugee population is likely to include some Syrian Christians who are being attacked by Islamic extremists, or Muslims who were trying to defend their Christian neighbors, he said.
“I don’t necessarily feel that any particular person who has been a former refugee or immigrant to our country came here under the control of some other group,” he said.
Clow said he would like to see the local Islamic Center take a more active role in condemning groups like ISIS.
“It’s something that I struggle with,” he said. “If Islam, as many people say, is a religion of peace, they should be standing up against these atrocities.”
Kauffman was involved with a church group at Clover Trinity Lutheran in Buhl that sponsored some of the first Laotian refugees who came here in the 1980s. Many of the second-generation Laotians went on to be highly successful, he said.
“I don’t know if everything has gone perfectly smoothly," Kauffman said. "But you’ve got to look at some of the good, too."