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Refugee Support Fills Idaho Statehouse Steps

Demonstration (and counter-demonstration) take refugee debate to Boise's streets

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The tension between demonstrators who turned out to support—and oppose—admitting Syrian refugees to Idaho had mounted for more than an hour, but when Shay Primrose took the microphone at the top of the Idaho State Capitol steps and performed a ukelele rendition of "O Holy Night," people on both sides of Jefferson Street sang along.

"I was inspired by the second verse," Primrose said afterward. "The story of Jesus is a story of radical love."

Estimates differ on how many people participated in the Nov. 21 rallies, but the dividing lines between them were distinct. On the Capitol side of Jefferson Street was the vast majority of demonstrators, waving signs welcoming refugees. They delivered speeches, sang songs and recited poetry in celebration of a version of America that welcomes the downtrodden. On the other side, a much smaller—though no less vocal—crowd gathered to press for more screening of incoming refugees and more resources for Idaho's veterans and homeless populations.

"Why should my taxes go to Syrians before Idahoans?" said David Pettinger.

The demonstration and counter-demonstration were capstones to a long year for the issue of refugees in Idaho. It began with two ballot measures currently gathering signatures in Twin Falls County that, if successful, would close the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center.

Proponents say the referenda halt Twin Falls' intake of potentially dangerous refugees coming from war-torn regions like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Opponents say the ballot push is xenophobic at best and illegal at worst. Pressure on the refugee center became so intense, CSI held a community forum featuring Office of Refugee Admissions Director Larry Bartlett and Refugee Center Director Zeze Rwasama in September.

In the wake of deadly terrosit attacks in Paris Nov. 13, fears were stoked worldwide. The self-declared "Islamic State" later claimed responsibility for the attack. In response to the attack and drawing on citizen input against refugee resettlement, Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter wrote to President Barack Obama urging him to halt the intake of refugees pending an audit of the program, which Otter reiterated during a conference call including more than 30 governors.

At the demonstration, safety was a rallying point for Mike Dennis, of Caldwell, who said the refugees from Syria currently being admitted into the United States were young men "of fighting age" and the attacks in Paris should be a lesson to the United States.

"We're welcoming in an army to attack us," he said. "Look in the media."

Talk like that, said Boise State University student Megan Freeman, could make America more vulnerable.

"The rhetoric of terrorism is to propel a movement like we have on the other side [of the street]," she said.

Richard Heinzcarried a sign bearing crossed-out swastikas that read: "Refugees welcome to stay/ Racists welcome to leave." He added he didn't think the people on the other side of the street were racists, but that didn't mean racism wasn't playing a role in their demonstration.

"Most likely, the majority of them aren't racists," he said. "The reason there's racism is because there's an us-versus-them mentality."

Counter-protest members denied there was a racial component to their demonstration.

"This isn't about hate," said III Percent of Idaho Public Information Officer Chris McIntire to the demonstration on the Capitol steps while calling for a moment of silence for veterans. The group he represents played a key role in organizing the the counter-protest.

III Percent of Idaho, however, was what attracted Southern Poverty Law Center correspondent David Neiwert to the demonstration. Neiwert said he has tracked militia and extremist groups since the 1990s, and Patriot Movement groups like III Percent and Oath Keepers have strong ties to militia groups he has studied in the past.

"The whole idea of III Percent is a second American Revolution," he said.

People on both sides of Jefferson Street had strong words, but Boise State student and Muslim Student Association Vice President Noora Muhamad, an Iraqi refugee from Kurdistan who came to America as an infant, was able to cut through the noise. As chants of "America first" threatened to drown out her speech, she drew cheers when she said, "I know you guys say 'Idaho First,' but I believe 'People First.'"

"I grew up learning to be open-minded and strong and independent," she said.