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Ottawa County Commission resolution on refugee resettlement is adopted, but it is a far cry from immigrant justice

January 29, 2020

Yesterday, I sat through a little over 2 hours of comments from people who came to speak to the Ottawa County Commission about their proposed motion to adopt a resolution (see pages 124 – 126) in response to the Trump administration’s Executive Order 13888, regarding refugee resettlement. The commission chambers was packed with no empty seats and at least another 100 people standing during the meeting. 

The Republican and Democratic Parties in Ottawa County were encouraging people to come out and speak to this issue, both using social media. I did not do a methodical count, but it is safe to say that more than half, and maybe as much as two-thirds, of those that spoke, were in favor of supporting a resolution to continue to welcome refugees.

Those opposing the increase in refugees coming to Ottawa County were using arguments that were right out of the playbook of groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Heritage Foundation. Many of those opposing the resolution also made claims that immigrants and refugees don’t pay taxes and are a burden on American society. One person even claimed that the US would be over run by Muslims and we would all be living under Sharia Law.

The racist and White Supremacist claims were repeated by those opposing the resolution in support of refugee resettlement. One additional argument was that “these people” would have to be assimilated into America culture. None of the people making this argument ever made clear what exactly American culture is, but based on their comments it meant white, Christian and patriotic.

For those who supported the resolution, some of them based it on their experience of working with refugees, either within non-profits or because their church had sponsored a refugee family. The overwhelming argument was based on Christian bible passages, like welcoming the stranger. Many people used the famous Matthew 25: 31 – 46 passage, where Jesus is separating the sheep from the goats. Some people read the entire passage, which ends with those who don’t welcoming refugees being sent to hell. 

I get that people of faith were using their religion to support a pro-refugee position, but some of it left a bad taste in my mouth. There was no discussion or articulation that US foreign policy was, in many cases, the cause of displacement. US military and economic policies are a major reason why hundreds of thousands of people, especially for people from Latin America, have fled their countries of origin and often come to the US seeking a better life.

In addition, there were too few responses to the racist and classist claims made by those presenting an anti-refugee/anti-immigrant position. Those supporting the resolution were often appealing to the county commissioner’s Christian heritage, instead of making a more robust argument for what was driving displacement globally. Many of those who supported the proposed resolution were also using the argument that refugees are hard workers, that they contribute to the economy and that they do learn English. While it may be true that many immigrants and refugees have a significant impact on the economy or are hard workers, such arguments are problematic. Refugees and immigrants are often fleeing political persecution, have suffered torture, experienced profound levels of poverty and other brutal circumstances. We should be very careful about using arguments that “they work hard” or “contribute to the economy,” since these arguments often perpetuate a Neo-Liberal Capitalist framework.

Lastly, it is worth noting that in the summary of the proposal from the Ottawa County Commission, it states:

Secondly, I reminded the community and Presidential political base that this refers to Adjudicated Refugees that the Trump Administration has admitted into the country and wants us to accept, so we don’t confuse our constituents that this is somehow making Ottawa County a sanctuary county for illegal refugees.

I include this point, because it also speaks to the larger issue about what the Ottawa County Commissioners think and feel about immigration in general. If immigrants or refugees are admitted to the US through channels that they have sanctioned, then the commission seems to be supportive. However, if immigrants are coming into the US without government sanction, meaning those who are undocumented, then the Ottawa County Commissioners will in no way support those who are undocumented.

The Ottawa County Commission did vote unanimously on the resolution to continue refugee resettlement. The vote is certainly a win for those who are committed to immigrant/refugee justice, but based on the comments from everyone who spoke yesterday, there is a great deal of work to be done to move from welcoming refugees who are admitted to the US, to practicing immigrant justice, where immigrants will not be criminalized, regardless of documentation.

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