TWIN FALLS • Four Magic Valley legislators have sent written opinions to the College of Southern Idaho about its Refugee Center program.
The college didn’t request the opinions, but has received positive feedback, CSI President Jeff Fox said.
Questions have been swirling since late April, though, when the center announced it will likely receive 300 refugees – possibly from Syria — starting in October.
“I think legislators have been getting calls from constituents and doing their due diligence to find out what the facts are,” Fox said.
Some community members are worried about Syrian refugees coming from a war-torn part of the Arab world.
College officials have responded by providing the best information possible, Fox said. “We’ve not ignored this.”
Refugee Center director Zeze Rwasama has also received phone calls and met with people to answer questions.
Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, has heard concerns from individual community members, at meetings, via comments on news stories and on Facebook.
He asked the Idaho Attorney General’s Office for an opinion about what role Idaho plays in immigration issues, if any. The response stated that role is specifically reserved for the federal government under the U.S. Constitution, Hartgen said.
He passed along information to Fox with a note, saying he thinks the college should be prudent and cautious, take concerns into account, and be transparent in making information available.
The Refugee Center isn’t likely a topic that will come before the Legislature as a whole, Hartgen said.
Three other Magic Valley legislators — Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding; Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome; and Rep. Clark Kauffman, R-Filer — told the Times-News they haven’t been contacted directly by community members about the Refugee Center.
Pence sent Fox an email expressing her support for the program. “I’m real positive about it.”
The history of incoming refugees goes back a long way, Bell said. “We should be a haven for people to express their own religion and freedoms.”
As for the response from some community members, “I’m troubled that they would be concerned,” she said.
“I assume it’s part of a concern about the people in the areas where Sharia law is and where things are different,” Bell added. “I hope that CSI is able to put that to rest with people who are really, really concerned.”
Kauffman said he wants to know what’s truly happening beyond the rumors. “I’m trying to be proactive in getting all the information,” he said.
Rwasama’s opinion piece in the Times-News about the Refugee Center “explained it all very well,” he said. “I guess if people choose not to believe certain things, it’s their privilege.”
Six Magic Valley residents expressed concerns at a CSI board meeting May 18 about an expected influx of Syrian refugees.
Rick Martin asked for a future agenda item to consider phasing out the Refugee Center program within six months, saying there’s not enough money to support it.
“This program is giving the college a bad rap,” he said. “Let someone else take it over.”
Hartgen said he knows CSI will handle concerns in a responsible fashion. “Citizens have a right to go to elected officials to raise concerns about a policy. That’s a process of democracy.”
CSI board chairman Karl Kleinkopf thanked speakers May 18 for their input and said the board will respond in writing.
Fox recalls only one other time since 2008 when the Refugee Center came under scrutiny. A speaker expressed concerns during a board meeting two or three years ago, he said.
Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, met with Rwasama to get a feel for how the Refugee Center works.
“First of all, I was very impressed with him,” Clow said, adding Rwasama grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and was a refugee in Rwanda. “He was able to tell the story of how refugees get here and the process they go through.”
Clow said many of the fears about incoming Syrian refugees are that they’re linked to radical Islamic extremists.
CSI doesn’t know the religious background of refugees coming in. But Clow suspects some will be Christians who were persecuted in Syria.
There’s nothing to hide or fear about Refugee Center operations, Fox said, adding there’s a long and successful track record.
Since 1984, the center has settled almost 5,000 people in the Magic Valley. Most are from Iraq and Iran.
The federal government decides how many refugees will come and from which countries. And extensive background checks are conducted before refugees are resettled, Fox said. “Security processes are multiple and rigorous.”