When Wilmot Collins arrived in Montana in 1994, a refugee from civil war in Liberia, he had to adapt to a new culture, new food, and new routines.
But the hardest thing to get used to was the weather.
“Coming from 90 degree weather to 40 and 30 and even below zero, that was treacherous, that’s what I’ll say,” he told me yesterday. “I came in February, what do you think it was like?”
In the last 20 years he’s lived here, in the state capital of Helena, Collins has learned to get used to the cold. He’s also become an honored and celebrated member of his community, serving in the U.S. military, starting a family, and now acting on an advisory board for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
Collins is a rare exception. Montana is one of only two states—the other is Wyoming—that haven’t accepted any refugees in the last year. In fact, the two Rocky Mountain states, among the least diverse in the country, haven’t resettled refugees since 2012, when Montana admitted one Iraqi refugee, according to statistics from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
As the United States prepares to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year—in addition to the 70,000 total refugees admitted every year—it's worth asking why these two states haven't been carrying their weight. The answer, local advocates say, is a combination of a decentralized national refugee resettlement system, a lack of bureaucratic enthusiasm, and simmering "not in my backyard" opposition.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any refugees living in either state. Many refugees originally settled in other states and then came to Montana or Wyoming for jobs. A sizable Somali community lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming, many having moved across the border from Greeley, Colorado, in the hunt of cheaper housing. And Montana has resettled groups of Hmong and Cuban refugees in the past.
But no refugees, according to the federal statistics, have been admitted and directly resettled in either state in the past few years. The main reason is the fact that refugees are resettled not by the federal government, but by public-private partnerships of local nonprofit organizations across the country. No organization currently has a refugee resettlement office in Wyoming or Montana.
For years, refugees were resettled haphazardly across the U.S., mostly by faith-based organizations, The process was standardized after Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980, following the influx of refugees from the Vietnam War. A growing body of regulations explained how the State Department vetted refugees abroad and chose who to admit, but then left it to a network of nonprofits to generally decide where to place them.
“All of the resettlements happen through the state and the local community, so it really depends on the particular state and community whether or not there’s an organization there to resettle them,” said Stephanie Nawyn, a Michigan State University professor who’s studied the resettlement process. “The federal government doesn’t set up these organizations, and each state has a slightly different way of doing it.”
Wyoming is the only state without a state refugee resettlement program, which means refugees there aren't able to get federal benefits. Montana has only a part-time refugee coordinator who works in the state government.
Neither state has a refugee resettlement nonprofit within their borders, making them the only two states not to have at least one local group. Bigger states like California have more than a dozen organizations covering different areas.
“The whole system is defined to get people in the labor market and get them a job as soon as possible,” Nawyn said. “That’s different from Europe, where they don’t want people competing with citizens for jobs. In the U.S., the most important thing is for you to stop receiving government assistance.”
Collins came to Montana because his wife, also a Liberian, had received a scholarship to go to university there. A church service paid for his plane ticket, and he had to pay them back after he started working. He didn’t get any other kind of government assistance, and it only took him about a month to find his first job.
Collins said the state should expand its refugee resettlement program to welcome more refugees to the state and help the refugees there now get services.
“Montana has a refugee coordinator, but they do nothing, they know nothing, they’re not willing to do anything,” Collins said. “It’s just that because there’s no coordination and no office, nobody knows these guys are coming in, they’re struggling on their own to find their place.”
Jon Ebelt, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, argues that the current system works. “To the best of our knowledge, Montana is able to meet the needs of the refugees that are in Montana and we’ll continue to do everything we can to help them as much as possible with the resources that are available,” he said in an email. There are currently four refugee families receiving cash and medical assistance from the state, he said.
If either the Montana or Wyoming state governments wanted to, they could partner with a nonprofit organization and start accepting refugees directly. The federal government would likely pay for most or all of the costs. Collins said he's personally offered to help the Montana state office get training on how to do that.
There would be some logistical hurdles to mount. Notably, both states lack a developed mass transit infrastructure, which could make it hard for new refugees to get around without a car. (The weather doesn't seem like it would be that big a problem, considering Michigan and Minnesota, where winters can be just as biting, welcome thousands of refugees each year.)
Another reason for the lack of a refugee office in either state may be local opposition from a small but very vocal minority. When Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, suggested the state could set up a refugee office, protesters rallied at the capital and right-wing blogs spread rumors that he wanted to build refugee camps in the state. It became one of the biggest issues in his re-election primary campaign last year, which he won.
Mead’s communications director, David Bush, told me on Tuesday there’ve been no further plans to open a resettlement center in the state.
In Montana, Stephen Maly, a board member with a local nonprofit supporting international diplomacy, suggested that the state start a resettlement organization in an opinion piece in the local Independent Record. Almost immediately, people started posting comments objecting the idea. Refugees “are local burdens right from the start,” one Montanan wrote in a response.
“Some people think that refugees are like undocumented immigrants, and that’s so wrong,” Collins said. “Refugees come here because of a situation that they cannot help at all—natural disaster, civil war, famine, something drastic happening in their home country. They come here under the auspices of the U.S. government.”
Collins said he thought that education was key to changing the minds of skeptics. If more people understood who refugees are and what they face, he said, they’d be more welcoming. And maybe then his state would be more willing to expand its refugee program.
“The community that I live in is a warm community—its temperature is cold, but their hearts are warm—and it’s a community that I know would open up their arms to refugees if they knew more,” he said.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.