Missoula Independent takes sides on Muslim refugee debate

Missoula is a small city on a plain surrounded by the mountains of western Montana. I got to visit it in 2008 to enjoy the wilderness to the north and west of the city. It has a weekly newspaper, the Missoula Independent, which has a wide variety of pieces on life in the intermountain West.

One aspect of that life are the refugees trickling into some of these isolated locales. Recently, the Independent published a piece on Muslim refugees, and the problems that some of the locales are having with their presence.

The headline “Fear meets loathing” gives you a hint of what is to come. Watch for the POV the reporter clearly has in this piece:

A phone call was the first sign of trouble for Darby librarian Wendy Campbell. The small public library at the far end of the Bitterroot Valley had scheduled a University of Montana professor to speak about Islam on March 9 as part of a cultural series on immigration experiences. The caller, a patron, wanted it canceled.
"She said that she was so mad, she needed to talk to me and tell me how she felt. She was against this Muslim coming to Darby. She said we were at war with Islam," Campbell says.
The next morning, three more concerned patrons showed up at the circulation desk. Campbell gave them complaint forms. They took extra copies for their friends.
Two days later the library board held an emergency meeting, ultimately agreeing that longtime Arabic professor Samir Bitar's presentation should continue as planned. But Campbell says she's reluctant to discuss the situation, fearing further escalation of an already tense environment.
"There is something building," Campbell says. "It's not a nice thing."
Over the past month, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment has reached fever pitch across western Montana, drawing hundreds to events or protests over the prospect that a petition to reopen Montana's only refugee resettlement office could bring Muslim terrorists to the area.

After giving a few examples of rallies of those opposed to refugee resettlement, the story continues:

Such opposition has become the mainstream right-wing position since the Paris terrorist attacks last November, but human rights groups have flagged local anti-refugee organizers for extremist ties and hateful overtures. Rachel Carroll Rivas, codirector of the Montana Human Rights Network, sees similarities to the political tone set by presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.
"The microphone that he's giving to hate speech is reverberating on the ground in our state," she says.

Got that? “Mainstream right-wing position”?

That rather sounds like a statement of opinion to me. The rest of the piece went on to insinuate how hateful and unreasonable all of the anti-refugee people are and how reasonable the pro-refugee-settlement folks are. For the record, I am very much in favor of helping refugees resettle in this country. When this whole furor started and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced that his state would be glad to have refugees, I tweeted my support. But Seattle is big and rich. These smaller communities are not as blessed.

When I suspect that not the whole story is being told, I turn to the comments on the piece, which in this case proved to be enlightening.

One poster takes exception to the “fear and loathing” headline, saying he knows three Muslims who themselves are afraid of this new “non-assimilation generation” of immigrants. That's an excellent point: Is the assumption that all Muslims have the same point of view?

Another asked what happens when the federal stipend of $1,100 per immigrant dries up after three months, which is when these benefits run out. Who is responsible for them, then?

Back in the mid-1990s, I was a sponsor for a Kurdish (and Muslim) family that settled in northern Virginia. Believe me, three months of support is does not get you far and the best kind of jobs they managed to get their first year or two were at Dunkin Donuts. And those were the kids. The 50-something parents had a terrible time finding work.

However, $1,100 per immigrant for three months goes further in these small cities than it did inside the Beltway and it will here in the increasingly high-priced Seattle area. Which is maybe why some refugees are heading for smaller towns.

The article ends by quoting a woman called Karen Sherman, a transplanted Texan who opposes refugee resettlement. Apparently the reporter picked up Sherman’s quotes at a rally, as Sherman herself left a comment stating the reporter never talked directly with her. If that’s true, that is sloppy.

Something else that the article didn’t tell us was how many cities in Montana are getting refugees. Why do I have to turn to an article in WorldNetDaily to find out about opposition in several small Mountain West cities?

When doing pieces like this, it’s helpful to ask where the fear is coming from. Several in the comments field cited problems with refugees in Amarillo, Texas. So I checked around and found this New York Times piece saying that Amarillo, which has the country’s highest ratio of refugees (from many other places besides the Middle East) is having to come up with translators in the public schools for 22 different languages. Hospitals, police, social services; all these systems are under immense strain.

And since crime rates have gone up in Amarillo, so is there some justification for peoples’ fears? If Amarillo is clearly overwhelmed, do other cities have a right to voice some fear?

Instead of ascribing all anti-refugee sentiment to anti-Muslim feeling as this Missoula Independent piece does, the reporter could have done a better service to his readers by casting a wider net. If there is such a groundswell of opposition, a newspaper has some responsibility for doing the research to dispel some of the myths, not to merely accuse the opposition.

People are not stupid; some may even read articles like this one in the British press about how Sweden is cratering under the weight of its refugee population, then wonder if such a thing could happen here. Of course the two countries are different; America’s population is 35 times that of Sweden’s and our histories are quite different.

Still, people are afraid. And dismissing all of them as mere right-wingers is no journalistic service at all.

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