Barron: Herbert’s Compassionate Leadership on Refugees Pushes Back On Hateful Fearmongering


Lifting Hands International (LHI) with Helping Hand for Relief & Development (HHRD) loads donated supplies into a trailer bound for Jordan on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017. (Photo by Adam Fondren | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Morgan Barron, Opinion Writer

There are currently 70.8 million refugees worldwide, and this number continues to increase as every day 37,000 people are forcibly displaced by military conflicts, ideological persecution or natural disasters. The United States, which once admitted more refugees each year than all other countries combined, resettled only 30,000 refugees during the 2019 fiscal year. When senior Trump advisor Stephen Miller’s emails were leaked, the racism and xenophobia contained in the correspondence were, sadly, unsurprising. Miller has been the mastermind behind embarrassing and heartless U.S. policies such as family separation at the border and the Muslim travel ban. He has also peddled conspiracy theories about a “caravan” of immigrants heading toward the U.S. and is the official responsible for slashing the number of refugees permitted to enter into the country in 2020.

Despite the obvious need, President Donald Trump announced that resettlement during the 2020 fiscal year will be capped at 18,000 (a number lower than that which followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks) and signed an executive order allowing state and local governments to reject refugees.

In response, Utah Governor Gary Herbert wrote a single-page letter to President Trump reading, “I encourage you to allow us to accept more international refugees in Utah.” Herbert’s letter, while brief, demonstrates that compassionate leadership and informed action still has a place in a political climate scarred by fearmongering and so-called “alternative facts.”

Early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were refugees themselves when they stumbled into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 after being chased from New York to Ohio to Illinois. Their persecutors often included government officials and law enforcement, including the Governor of Missouri, who signed an extermination order declaring that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies.” After finding safety in the high desert, the pioneers began to carve a community out of the surrounding mountains.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In his letter to President Trump, Herbert references the history of these religious refugees. While paralleling the struggles of modern refugees with that of Utah’s ancestors may have little impact on the President’s foreign policy, it does put the refugee crisis into a context more approachable for Utahns, many of whom learned about the Mormon settlers in school or church. When Herbert later writes “We empathize deeply with individuals and groups who have been forced from their homes,” it provides a reminder to Utahns that with our history, we cannot refuse refuge to those in need

The International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services (Utah’s resettlement organizations) have helped the approximately 60,000 refugees currently living in Utah adjust to their new home. These agencies not only ensure that refugees have access to basic needs such as food, shelter and healthcare during the early stages of resettlement, they have also established programs that help refugees secure work and learn English. According to the IRC, “once they acclimate to their new environment, refugees often thrive and contribute to their communities, building careers, purchasing homes, gaining citizenship.”

“There is a logical limit to how many refugees can be successfully integrated into a state,” Herbert argued. “However, in Utah we are far from reaching that limit.” He went on to explain that these local resettlement agencies have created infrastructure that has allowed Utah to accept over 1,000 refugees in the past. Clearly, Utah is capable of integrating a similar influx of refugees in the meantime. While unlimited resettlement into Utah may not be sustainable, discussing what services are currently in place opens an honest discussion on how many refugees can be responsibly helped in our state. Herbert’s letter highlights how Utah, at the very least, could play a bigger role in helping some of the tens of millions seeking asylum in the United States.

The Trump Administration may have fostered fear within many Americans, but Governor Herbert’s continued advocacy and service is a reminder that the refugee crisis is a crisis for refugees themselves, not the Americans receiving them. His most recent statement on refugees, the letter to the White House, emulates the inscription on Lady Liberty’s dais — compassionate and nuanced leadership. Herbert set an example not only of how this country’s leaders should behave, but also how every U.S. citizens should approach their neighbors in need. Governor Herbert has led by example, and when he steps down from office in January 2020, Utahns should ensure that his replacement approaches immigration issues with the sympathy and leadership necessary to balance the vitriol in the White House.


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