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Know the West

Western states widely support refugee resettlement

The president’s executive order meant to limit resettlement, but the West is opting for more.


Last September, President Donald Trump undercut the countrys refugee resettlement program in two ways: He announced that the 2020 resettlement numbers would be capped to 18,000 refugees, a huge cut from 110,000 in fiscal year 2017. More surprising, though, was his executive order requiring states and localities to agree to refugee resettlement in their municipalities. The move was unprecedented, and many advocates saw it as proof of an increasingly nativist administration.  

Local governments had 90 days — or until Jan. 21 to agree to resettlement in writing. In a hasty response, many governors and local officials rushed to write approvals in their jurisdictions through a flurry of county declarations. Texas was the only state to formally decline refugee resettlement; several others simply did not issue letters of consent. By mid-January, a federal judge ruled the order had been unlawful to begin with. But as of this writing, the ordeal would not be over yet: On Feb. 11, the government appealed the judge’s ruling in federal court. Meanwhile, counties in non-Western states like Maine and Minnesota continued to make symbolic “no” votes, stirring anxiety among refugee populations.  

Kayla Garn, right, shakes hands with a student during an English language class organized by the Twin Falls, Idaho, Refugee Center. The center has assisted refugees for 40 years, and is strongly supported by the community with more private donations and prospective volunteers than it can handle.

Yet in the Western United States, the executive order led to an almost unanimous consensus that refugee resettlement was, in fact, welcome. Governors — Republicans and Democrats alike — came out in enthusiastic bipartisan support. Wyoming was the exception: The state is the only in the country that does not participate in resettlement. (In 2013, former Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, received local backlash after he attempted to start a program in the state, effectively halting the effort.)

Trump’s executive order seemed to backfire across much of the West. Given the opportunity, most officials said the program wasnt a burden, but rather, a boon — a sign of the resilience of both the cities and rural towns that shape the region.

REFUGEE RESETTLEMENT HAS a long history in the United States. The first legislation was passed in 1948, after more than 250,000 people came to the U.S. in the aftermath of World War II. The law eventually opened the door to hundreds of thousands of Europeans and others fleeing persecution in places like China, Korea and Cuba. After the Vietnam War, Congress was tasked with helping resettle refugees, leading to a monumental piece of legislation: The Refugee Act of 1980. Since then, the U.S. president has had the ability to set caps on refugee numbers. 


Today, with a new historically low cap, several governors are using their letters to express a desire to bring back earlier resettlement numbers. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, R, cited his state’s “unique history,” noting that Utah was founded by Mormons fleeing religious persecution. “As a result, we empathize deeply with individuals and groups who have been forced from their homes,” he wrote. According to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, a demographic research center, the state had approximately 60,000 refugee residents as of 2017.  

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, D, made a similar request. I ask that our state be willing to accept at least as many refugees as previous years, and should other states be unable or unwilling to accept refugee families into their jurisdictions, they will be welcomed here,” he wrote. Since 1975, the state has resettled over 150,000 refugees from Iraq and Somalia, among other countries, and has the second-most arrivals after Texas, according to The Refugee Processing Center. Two other Western states, Arizona and California, are also among the top states for refugee resettlement.   

Alejandro Sanchez, a staff member from Inslee’s office, said that the low resettlement numbers for fiscal year 2020 would prove a problem for agencies in the state. Resettlement agencies will be strained because they have an infrastructure that has been built up to support all of these individuals,” he said.  

With lower demand comes less federal funding for agencies, which can result in office closures at the local level and fewer services for the existing refugee population. According to a report by the advocacy group Refugee Council USA, between the end of 2016 and the spring of 2019, 92 offices across the country have had to either close their refugee programs or suspend some of their services due to lack of funding. This impacts refugees who have already been resettled, leaving them without the important resources — from assistance in finding housing to enrolling in school — they need to navigate their new lives.

Many state officials cited the economy as one reason why refugees were welcome. Arizona, which in 2019 accepted 1,200 refugees, down from over 4,000 in 2016, works with a resettlement agency that trains refugees for jobs in manufacturing, an industry that generated $19 billion in exports in 2018. In rural Idaho, refugees fill employment needs in the dairy sector. In Colorado, they work in meatpacking plants. Many others go on to work in professional fields, or start their own businesses.  

“For every dollar Colorado invests in refugees, we receive a $1.23 return on investment in tax revenue.”

They also bring their own dollars to the economy. According to a report by the New American Economy, refugees held a spending power of $17.2 billion in California in 2015 alone. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, D, harped on this point in his letter of consent, writing, “For every dollar Colorado invests in refugees, we receive a $1.23 return on investment in tax revenue.” Last year, Colorado passed a bill codifying the state’s Refugee Services Program into law, an important move that prevents future governor from using executive action to pull out of the federal program. 

For Krish OMara Vignarajah, CEO and president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, a national resettlement agency, the vocal acceptance of refugees across the West was not surprising. I expected most communities to continue to welcome refugees,” she said. Yet, she added, I always fear that these issues can become politicized because it is so easy to weaponize fear of the unknown.” 

While the future of the executive order is still up in the air, the immediate response has been positive for advocates: Over the course of a month, it prompted 42 states and 107 local leaders to offer public support for the resettlement program, a program that has been historically bipartisan.

Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor