After it was discovered that some of the suspects involved in last month’s terror attacks in Paris may have come to France as refugees, governors around the U.S. have announced that their states will not accept Syrian Refugees until more security checks could be promised. Wyoming governor Matt Mead was one of them, but Wyoming still does not have a refugee resettlement program to bar Syrians from in the first place.
Refugee resettlement programs help screen and sponsor refugees, provide a stipend, orientation, and English classes for new arrivals. Wyoming is the only state without any kind of program like this.
Suzan Pritchett, an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming’s law school and the director of its International Human Rights Clinic, says because of that, the governor’s statement refusing Syrian refugees does not have any real legal effect.
“This sort of reaction, especially from the governor of Wyoming, a state that doesn’t participate in this program, seemed to be more politically motivated than in relation to anything that is happening in our state,” says Pritchett.
As far as anyone can tell Wyoming has never addressed the issue of refugees, so it would be tough to say what a resettlement program might look like, but Pritchett says it would be nothing like the current situation in Europe.
“What’s happening in Europe right now is a lot of unauthorized immigration due to the waves of refugees that are arriving by boat. Those people aren’t coming to the shores of the United States,” says Pritchett.
When refugees do come to the United States, it’s a long process with many layers of vetting. First, they apply to the State Department’s Resettlement Support Center. If they are approved, they go through personal interviews, medical examinations, and background checks by multiple different government agencies before being settled in a state.
Governor Mead’s concern in accepting Syrian refugees is that Wyoming would be put at a higher risk for letting in terrorists, but Mead admits that without a refugee program at all the state is flying blind.
“I don’t know who is coming into the state. I don’t have a way to find out who’s coming into the state,” says Mead.
So he has asked the Wyoming Humanities Council to look into the refugee resettlement with panels and discussions that will address the issue.
“I think the Humanities Council, they’re not advocates for or against, but I think they are a good group to say ‘let’s at least inform ourselves as we make the decisions,” says Mead.
Shannon Smith, the executive director of the Humanities Council, says now it is more important than ever to move forward with measured discussions about refugee resettlement.
“If we can go down in history as having had these conversations, rather than move very quickly or base 100% of our decisions on one set of information, then we will have failed like we did by interning 120,000 Japanese,” says Smith.
Looking to history as a way to understand the present is a main focus of the Wyoming Humanities Council’s programming. Phil Roberts, a professor at the University of Wyoming and a Wyoming Historian, sees a bit of history repeating itself in the current political situation.
“I do see parallels between the political demagoguery that’s going on now with respect to the refugee question and what went on during and after World War I in particular,” says Roberts.
Roberts says Wyoming was wary of Jewish European refugees between the two World Wars for fear of German spies. The story of fear and prejudice was much the same with Japanese Americans when they were interned at Heart Mountain. Roberts is not convinced, though, that looking at similar situations in the past will change how the government acts, especially if people are afraid.
“Oftentimes history isn’t as good an indicator of what’s going to happen in the present or the future, as it is just a demonstration of human nature. And human nature is hard to change,” says Roberts.
The Wyoming Humanities Council will hope to address some of those fears and concerns when they start their panels in early 2016.