Since 1980, more than three million refugees from around the world have resettled in the United States. Wyoming is the only state in the country to not participate in a refugee resettlement program, meaning those seeking a new home cannot be directly settled in the state's borders.
Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler spoke with University of Wyoming Assistant Law Professor Jerry Fowler, who is also the supervisor of the UW Law School's International Human Rights Clinic, about the impact this can have on our state.
Catherine Wheeler: First to start, what is the definition of a refugee? What kinds of requirements do people have to meet to be classified as a refugee?
Jerry Fowler: Legally, a refugee is someone who has fled their home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution, based on their race, or their religion, or their political views, or their ethnicity, or their membership in a particular social group. In the U.S. system, the resettlement of refugees is the resettlement of people who are overseas who have fled their country because of this well-founded fear. And every year, the United States government sets an overall cap on refugee admissions, which for the year we're in now is 15,000.
And there's a very extensive vetting process done by the federal government, as to whether someone is a refugee, and then whether they're otherwise qualified to come into the United States, which means they don't have a criminal background and not a security risk, they don't have health problems, etc, etc. And then, once the decision is made by the federal government to admit them to the United States, they're resettled in particular communities. And that's spread out over the whole United States, except for Wyoming. Wyoming is actually the only state in the union that doesn't accept refugees.
CW: What does that mean? I know that we don't formally participate in a refugee resettlement program, but does that mean no refugees can come to Wyoming?
JF: Well, that means they don't get resettled into Wyoming when they come directly from overseas. Now, once a refugee gets resettled, they create a life in the United States and, you know, like anyone else who's living in the United States, they can move around. So there are definitely people in Wyoming who came to the United States originally as refugees, but they weren't formally resettled originally into Wyoming.
CW: What's the recent history of this issue? Have non-profit groups or lawmakers attempted to get something like this here?
JF: A the number of years ago, there were steps taken to create a refugee resettlement center in Wyoming under Gov. Mead. And he originally notified the federal government that Wyoming was looking into it, and then it became controversial, and basically, the effort kind of faded away.
CW: In your opinion, what are the practical effects of Wyoming not participating in this program? Does it take things away from residents of the state or opportunities away from people that are coming to this country?
JF: That's in some ways a difficult question to answer. Wyoming is a state with a relatively small population. And so if Wyoming accepted refugees, it wouldn't accept that many, because they're spread out over the whole country. And the fact is that other states can pick up the flack of Wyoming not accepting refugees. There are two harms, really. One is that, you know, welcoming refugees is a way to share the good fortune that we have as a country, with people who have suffered one of the most unfortunate things you can imagine, which is being driven from their homes. And we as a country do that, but Wyoming doesn't participate in that. So Wyoming is not helping out in the way that other states are. It does kind of portray an image of Wyoming as not being a welcoming place, which I don't think is an accurate image.
But if that image is portrayed that could discourage other people from coming to Wyoming. And then the second harm, I think, is just, we're depriving ourselves of the benefit of new people coming in, usually people who are very oriented towards succeeding, who have a lot of energy, who often end up in our country as a whole being very successful. And it doesn't really make sense for us as a state not to want people who come here who are looking to build a better life. I mean, that's what most of the people who came to Wyoming in the 125 years have been coming for, and refugees are no different in that regard. And why would we not want to welcome a population relatively small in number, but eager to succeed?