A public hearing on a proposed letter opposing the settlement of Syrian refugees in Ravalli County and the surrounding area drew more than 500 Thursday afternoon. The Ravalli County Commission hosted the meeting, which had to be moved three times to accommodate the crowd.
Missoulian By the time the meeting was finished, the commissioners had heard enough to approve a modified version of the letter and expand its circulation to include the governor, Montana’s congressional delegation and Missoula officials.
The meeting garnered a large cheer when the commissioners announced it would begin with the Pledge of Allegiance and included a loud emphasis from the crowd on the words “under God” during its recital.
The commissioners recently released their proposed letter to the U.S. State Department that opposed the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the county and surrounding area. The draft letter expressed concerns about the community’s safety due to government’s inability to adequately vet the refugees to ensure they don’t belong to a terrorist organization. Most of the people who spoke Thursday agreed with them.
Commission Chair Ray Hawk opened the meeting by saying they had received a good deal of correspondence on the issue, with a margin of about 50 to 1 in opposition to allowing refugees to settle in Ravalli County.
Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, said the resettlement of refugees is “big business” that generates millions of dollars for the organizations involved. She said the governor’s decision to allow Syrian refugees to settle in Montana was an effort to obtain some of that federal funding.
Many said they feared radical Islam and the potential for terrorism. Some pointed to problems that European countries are having with refugees they have accepted. Others said this country needs to take care of veterans and the homeless first.
Phil Liggins of Hamilton said that Allah and the God of the Bible were not one and the same. “The U.S. may not be at war with Islam, but Islam is at war with the U.S.,” he said.
The few people who did step up in opposition to the county sending the letter were met with catcalls and heckling.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows said it didn’t take very long for the commissioners to come to that decision following the meeting. “We heard loud and clear that people were concerned about impacts to the economy and infrastructure,” Burrows said. “From the commissioners’ point of view, this wasn’t about race or religion. This was about impacts to local services and impacts to public health, safety and welfare in Ravalli County.”