A Bible Belt State Embraces Refugees

Arkansas in 2015 did not look like a good place for refugees. After the Nov. 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, rumors of hordes of refugees descending upon Arkansas swept across the state. Arkansas’ Republican Governor, Asa Hutchinson, tweeted that he would “oppose Syrian refugees being relocated to Arkansas.” The one refugee resettlement agency in the state, Catholic Charities, which was resettling a mere dozen refugees annually, was inundated with hate email and telephone death threats.

But in February of 2020, after three years of anti-immigrant moves by the Trump Administration, nearly 200 refugees had been resettled in the state. More than 50 arrived in 2019 and a half dozen more had already arrived in 2020. More are scheduled to come. And, when President Trump issued an executive order in the fall of 2019 that said states and local governments could refuse to accept refugees, the formerly anti-refugee governor made a very public decision to welcome more refugees to his state.

Gov. Hutchinson stood in front of the Arkansas General Assembly to deliver a impassioned speech defending his decision to continue to accept refugees and then withstood 30 minutes of mostly hostile questioning about refugees.

“He took it on the chin,” said Emily Crane Linn, executive director of Canopy NWA, the Arkansas refugee resettlement group that came into being in 2016 — with the cooperation of that same Governor.

“We tried to offer him the option to give his consent really quietly and without much fanfare,” Linn said. But Hutchinson went for it. “He said, ‘I want people to know why I support this and I want to be public about it.'”

Canopy, which has been careful to tell the governor when refugees are arriving and who they are since its inception. made sure that he had all of the talking points he needed at his finger tips for his speech. The Governor called upon refugees in the audience to stand up while he praised their achievements, and he also introduced Linn, who was sitting right behind him during his presentation.

The group also made sure that the governor had a lot of public support. Members of churches and other faith-based groups wrote letters to support refugees. So did employers and business leaders. And it helped that Canopy’s refugee clients have all achieved self-sufficiency within 90 to 180 days of their arrival.

It’s all part of Canopy’s communication strategy. It constantly engages with people.

Having Gov. Hutchinson speak his truth about refugees was a huge help, Linn said. His words carried far more clout than any coming from a refugee resettlement group like Canopy.

“We have a stake in the game,” she said. The means anyone with any doubts about refugees might also doubt Canopy’s facts. But a conservative governor like Hutchinson can reach people Canopy can’t. After the governor’s speech, Canopy continued talking to legislators.

“There have been a lot of legisltors who have really changed their attitude and posture toward the program,” Linn said. And these legislators have shared their knowledge with their constituents.

Arkansas is a very conservative state, Linn said, but conservative values include helping the stranger. And it wasn’t just the governor who had to approve refugees, a conservative county judge had to do so as well. “He could see it aligned with his conservative values, it was not a stretch for him,” Linn said.

This shows the importance and power of advocacy–of calling state legislators and local authorities to say you support welcoming refugees. Conservatives across the nation have long supported refugee resettlement, passing appropriations bills to fund refugee resettlement. That’s why calling legislators at every level and meeting with them is so important, Linn said. Helping the stranger is a fundamental conservative value, Linn, said. And one way to get people to focus on that instead of fear is to communicate and make sure everyone knows how secure and effective the process is.

Arkansas, where Trump won 60% of the votes in 2016, and which has a Republican governor and legislature, is living proof that the strategy works.

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