Gov. Asa Hutchinson defended his decision allowing Arkansas to opt in to the Trump administration’s program of accepting foreign refugees, but some state legislators were skeptical at a committee meeting Monday.
Hutchinson appeared before a joint meeting of the House and Senate City, County and Local Affairs Committees after informing the U.S. State Department in a letter dated Dec. 23 that Arkansas would accept refugees.
The Trump administration had issued an executive order giving states the right to refuse acceptance. Most states, like Arkansas, have opted in, though Texas on Jan. 10 announced it would not.
Arkansas accepted 54 refugees in fiscal year 2019. Of those, eight came from Afghanistan, five from Liberia, four from Rwanda, one from Iraq, one from Iran, and the rest came from the Democratic Republic of Congo. So far this year, Arkansas has been sent only five refugees, all from Columbia, and Hutchinson expects the total to be less than 50.
Hutchinson said Arkansas will accept refugees throughout this year and then will advise the State Department regarding future participation. He said he hopes it does. The immediate relocation will occur only in Washington County. County Judge Joseph Wood and the mayors of Fayetteville and Springdale have submitted letters indicating their acceptance of refugees.
But Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, pointed out that refugees can legally settle anywhere within 100 miles of their destination. Hutchinson acknowledged that refugees can move from the county or city that has accepted them, including to another state.
“There is a freedom of movement in the United States of America,” he said, adding later that there is “no intent” to locate outside of the Washington County area. He said 98% of refugees become self-sufficient within 90-120 days of arrival, and many are escaping hardship and persecution. He said the federal government had determined that refugees are a $16.9 billion net benefit to the American economy. Transition support for resettlement has come from the federal government and private dollars, but no state dollars have been involved. He said the “cost-benefit analysis is a net-plus for our state.”
Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, the Senate committee chair, said refugees represent a cost to the U.S. government funded by federal taxes, one of several comments that drew applause from a small but vocal group in the audience. He said refugees are eligible for public benefits while many Arkansans struggle with hunger and veterans do not get assistance. Even with strong vetting, a refugee could slip through the process who would be a national security or public safety threat, he argued.
Stubblefield said that while no one would object to immigrants who learn the language and adopt American culture, too many refugees don’t assimilate and in fact change American culture.
“Every morning when I wake up and turn on the national news, sometimes I ask myself the question, ‘Am I still in the United States of America?’ Because I hear some of the craziest ideas, and I wonder where they’re coming from,” he said.
Hutchinson replied that Italian immigrants founded the city of Tontitown and can have a love for both the United States and their own heritage. He told legislators the United States has successfully assimilated immigrants for more than 200 years.
Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, complained that legislators were not given advance notice about Hutchinson’s letter and did not have enough information about the policy. He asked Hutchinson about a recent trip to China where he was accompanied by his son, Asa Hutchinson III, whose law firm has foreign business clients.
The refugees would be resettled through Canopy of Northwest Arkansas, a private firm that works under contract with the State Department. Rice asked if the law firm has a connection with Canopy or other refugee groups. Hutchinson said he is not associated with his son’s law firm but was not aware of a connection.
He said refugees qualify for entry into the United States after a strict vetting process with more security checks than any other kind of immigrant and after undergoing a cultural education program.
“A refugee is not someone who crosses our borders illegally or someone who enters our country and claims asylum,” Hutchinson said. “A refugee coming to America is not an illegal entry.”
He pointed out that he had opposed a resettlement four years ago of Syrian refugees into Arkansas. But since then, the Trump administration had made a number of policy changes, the governor said. Those included limiting the number of refugees nationwide to 18,000, with less than 50 likely to come to Arkansas this year. Refugees most likely to be accepted include those suffering from religious persecution and those who have assisted American counterterrorism operations. He said the vetting process for refugees has been increased, and state and local governments have been included in decisions.
Hutchinson said he had been briefed on security checks by “my former colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security.” He served as an undersecretary in that department after it was created.
Hutchinson brought with him several refugees, including Lusia Akilimali, who fled Congo for Kenya with her husband and then waited 18 years to to be resettled. In a Kenyan refugee camp, she opened a small grocery store, started a Baptist church and then adopted a couple of Congolese refugee children. Resettled in Arkansas in 2018, she has completed her certified nursing assistant training and is working at a senior care center, while her husband works for a manufacturing company in Springdale. Their oldest son is working toward a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Another refugee, Homayoon Abdullah, worked for years in Afghanistan with U.S. officials. His son was killed as a result of his service.
“He lost his son because of his commitment to the United States of America,” he said.
Near the end of the question-and-answer session, Hutchinson said legislators are community leaders.
“You’ve got a choice to make. You can create fear, or you can help resolve fear. I challenge you to help resolve fear, have the facts, and to talk about those,” he said.
He later added, “I’m a native Arkansan. I understand change, and I understand resistance to change. We’re not changing the culture of Arkansas. We’re just sharing the culture of Arkansas to those who also are troubled coming from terrible circumstances, and I think we can embrace them.”