After the first reports came out in April that Syrian refugees could be coming to Idaho, the blowback began almost immediately.
“Obama Admin to Colonize Idaho with Thousands of Muslim Refugees from Syria,” one right-wing news site proclaimed. A committee was started to close the respected refugee resettlement program in the city of Twin Falls. Protesters launched a ballot measure to shutter the local refugee center.
They don't care that no Syrians have actually been resettled in southern Idaho and that there are no confirmed plans to bring them there.
As the Obama administration looks to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year, right-wing media are again up in arms, and the response to the Idaho rumors suggests that local opposition could sprout up across the U.S. That kind of hostility can have a negative effect on newly arriving refugees.
Since Obama announced the new measures last week, a series of alarmist headlines from the expected right-wing news outlets—as well as myriad blog posts from Wordpress sites like “Creeping Sharia” and “Refugee Resettlement Watch”—have been painting vile caricatures of refugees.
“Will flood of Syrian refugees leave U.S. vulnerable to attack?” asked Fox News.
“How many Americans will Obama’s Muslim migrants kill?” wondered Frontpage Magazine.
“The Muslims from these countries come from a very intolerant culture,” explained the American Thinker. “They will refuse to assimilate and when they gather in sufficient numbers they will instead insist we conform to their culture.”
“The Obama administration is… hell-bent on fast-tracking our demise by assisting Muslim colonization of our cities and countryside,” added Canada Free Press. (Did somebody say something about an intolerant culture?)
As the Idaho example shows, these ideas tend not to stay only within the echo chamber of far-right websites but also fuel sharp local disputes. The resettlement center at the center of the debate, which is run by the College of Southern Idaho, has welcomed more than 5,000 refugees in the area since it started in the '80s. But that didn't stop locals from demanding that the college drop the refugee program after a local news story about the possibility of a few hundred Syrian immigrants blew up.
Now, activists are planning a ballot campaign and hoping to run candidates for the local college board of trustees to shutter the refugee center—even though there's been no confirmation yet that any Syrians are coming to the area.
“We have not received any Syrians so far, nor are we scheduled to,” Zeze Rwasama, the program’s director, told me. “People are worried about something that is not true.”
Refugees go through multiple security clearances before they reach American soil, he noted. In fact, refugees “are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States," a State Department official told the AFP.
Once they’re approved, the State Department pays for refugees’ plane tickets, although they agree to pay the cost back once they’re settled. They’re sent to one of 180 refugee resettlement centers around the U.S., where they get help finding a job and a place to stay. Refugees get support from the federal government for 90 days.
Studies have found that refugees’ ability to thrive in a new home depends in part on how welcomed they feel by their local community, so the anti-refugee rhetoric that has flared in the past week could have a negative impact on the people coming here.
“It’s not just a matter of the refugees adapting to the host community that they travel to, but the willingness of the host community to adapt to the newcomers,” R. Scott Smith, a professor at Utica College who has studied refugees in the U.S., told me. “If there is hostility to the newcomers resettling, that obviously makes the process more difficult… It’s like going from one traumatic situation to another.”
In the most successful examples of resettlement, Smith said, host communities recognize the benefits that refugees can bring, such as the potential to revitalize struggling neighborhoods or reverse decreasing population trends.
Maybe everyone fearmongering about “Muslim colonization” should take a history lesson.
“People should understand why the United States has the resettlement program,” Rwasama said. “When you look at how America was created, this was a land of immigrants, that’s what it started as. People that are refugees are people that are victims. They’re survivors that are running away from those bad people that everyone is afraid of.”
- Syrian refugees in the United States, by the numbers
- America will accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the coming year
- Egyptian billionaire offers to buy refugees an island in Europe
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.