A movement to block the potential resettlement of Syrian refugees in the state of Montana took to the steps of the Capitol for a rally on Monday. It was the second high-profile event to voice such opposition within a week.
Holding a white poster board with a heart and a peace sign, Hollister Renau was in the clear minority and sparred with Laurie Jensen from Whitehall.
“I just don’t understand what’s so wrong with these Syrians. Why are you so against these [Syrians]?” Renau asked.
“It’s not just for me Syrians. It’s any Muslim refugees that are coming over,” Jensen responded.
Jensen had a sign of her own. Hers was in line with the prevailing attitude at the 100-person rally.
The sign said the United States will be destroyed from within. That is, she says, if America allows more Syrian refugees to resettle in America as the Obama administration announced in September. The administration said it intends to allow in 10,000 refugees in over the course of a year.
“If we can't vet them, and we aren’t going to keep track of them once they are here, that’s just a recipe for disaster,” said Jensen.
Similar conversations have played out nationally. According to the magazine "The Nation", only 841 Syrians fleeing their war-torn home in the Middle East have been resettled in the U.S. since the President’s announcement.
Montanans like Jensen say it’s their duty to tell lawmakers they feel threatened by efforts in Montana to welcome Middle Eastern populations like Syrians.
A series of speakers at Helena’s two-hour event elicited patriotic cheers from the crowd.
“Follow the Constitution. Read the Constitution,” one participant shouted.
The event was branded the American Security Rally of Montana. A similar gathering was held in Missoula at the beginning of February under the same banner. An unaffiliated event was also held last week in Hamilton. There, the Ravalli County Commission presented a letter addressed to elected officials stating refugees were not welcome in the county.
Many have condemned the gatherings for their anti-Islamic rhetoric. Jim Buterbaugh, the rally’s organizer, said it’s about more than that.
“I would love to be able to open the doors and let everyone in. But we’ve already got lots of people out of work and stuff," Butterbaugh said. "We've got people living on the streets that we need to take care of. To throw the doors open and just bring everybody in here, we'll have everybody on the streets."
Groups like Soft Landings in Missoula and World Montana in Helena have been working with lawmakers and local leaders to develop plans to settle potential refugee populations in the the Treasure State. They have not indicated if and when settlements could take place. But they have previously said they are being thoughtful about the process.
About a dozen counter-protestors came to the capitol to represent this pro-refugee stance. High school student Nicolette Kleppelid took the afternoon off to make her protest sign that read, “Accept the Refugees.”
“All these people are here because they believe in something, and we’re here because we believe in something."
Rachel Caroll Rivas is from the Montana Human Rights Network. She says events like those at the capitol are worrisome but expected.
"These aren’t necessarily new folks that are out saying these things that are pretty hateful about refugees and Muslim people. These are folks that we are really familiar with. They’ve been activists on anti-gay issues, a variety of anti-choice issues, opposing immigration issues for over a decade in Montana.”
Despite concerns about the rallies creating an unwelcoming atmosphere for outsiders, Caroll Rivas says Montana could be a great home for refugees.
“There are a lot of reasons that it might not sound particularly appealing to be in Montana when this is the things that we see in the news. However, I think refugees want to live in a place just like anyone else. It’s a place where you can create community and know your neighbor. I think there are a lot of reasons that refugees might want to relocate in Montana that are the same reasons that all of us are here."
Caroll Rivas says her organization is planning events for the beginning of March to show support for potential refugee resettlement.
Buterbaugh from the American Security group says he also intends to host another rally soon in Billings.
[Correction: An earlier version of this post was published with an incomplete transcription of the following quote from Jim Buterbaugh, we regret the error: “I would love to be able to open the doors and let everyone in. But we’ve already got lots of people out of work and stuff," Butterbaugh said. "We've got people living on the streets that we need to take care of. To throw the doors open and just bring everybody here, we'll have everybody on the streets."]