Posted on October 12, 2021

One State Has Never Taken in Refugees. Will It Welcome Afghans?

Karin Brulliard, Washington Post, October 6, 2021

Jim Shumard, the rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church here, sent the email to his congregation with some trepidation. The plan it announced could be historic — for the parish and for Wyoming. But he knew it could also be divisive.

“Together, we are exploring hosting an Afghan family here in Casper,” the headline said in bold blue letters.

Whether that will happen, or even be possible, in this deeply conservative Western state remains in question. Wyoming, overwhelmingly White and Christian, has never formally welcomed refugees. Just a few years ago, debate over refugee resettlement spiraled into anti-Islam protests and a Koran-burning, alarming the state’s tiny Muslim population and dashing the hopes of its most prominent refugee advocate.

And this summer, amid a deluge of support for Afghan evacuees spanning political and faith spectra, the leaders of just two states, Wyoming and South Dakota, said they did not want to take in refugees. Wyoming is the only state that has no refugee resettlement program, nor has it ever had one. That makes the Cowboy State, as it is known, an island in a nation where states red and blue have for decades welcomed refugees.

Bipartisan enthusiasm for helping Afghans who assisted the U.S. war effort and fled the Taliban takeover has waned somewhat, with Senate Republicans last week attempting to curtail evacuees’ access to aid and identification cards. Even so, 46 states are now preparing to host the refugees — including Wyoming’s neighbors. Idaho is expecting about 400 in the next year. Utah is welcoming 765 in the coming months. Montana will soon receive 75 Afghans.

It is unclear why Wyoming never established a resettlement program, experts say, but it is fairly clear why it is not doing so now: There is negligible overt support in a state where in 2020, 70 percent of voters cast their ballots for President Donald Trump, who slashed refugee admissions and banned travel from several Muslim-majority nations.

In a sparsely populated state where just 3.4 percent of residents are foreign-born, a go-it-alone ethos, some say, translates into hostility toward refugees who might need help finding housing and jobs.


Yet even though there is hardly any public discussion here about refugees, some see openings now — in part because the need to resettle 95,000 Afghans is so overwhelming. Under Trump, resettlement agencies focused on sending a far smaller number of refugees to hubs with established communities and services. President Biden’s plan to raise the refugee admissions cap to 125,000 will change that, said Allison Duvall, manager for church relations and engagement at Episcopal Migration Ministries.

Duvall said her office has been flooded with interest from parishes throughout the country that want to assist Afghans — including Shumard’s church and two others in Wyoming.


That is the hope of Bishop Paul-Gordon Chandler, who leads the Episcopal Church in Wyoming, the state’s 50-parish diocese. {snip}


Chandler said he had spoken to Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon (R), an Episcopalian. Gordon, he said, listened but did not commit to any particular action.

Gordon declined to be interviewed, but there are signs his view has shifted. In mid-August, his spokesman told Cowboy State Daily that Gordon had “no interest” in accepting Afghans. In an email to The Washington Post last week, the spokesman said Gordon was exploring the process through which Wyoming faith groups might host evacuees and would work with the legislature to craft a program if necessary.


The extent of that compassion may depend on how much the climate has changed since five years ago, when an effort to launch a resettlement program ended after vitriolic public debate.

It began with the efforts of a Congolese refugee, Bertine Bahige, who was resettled near Baltimore and later moved to Wyoming, where he became a celebrated elementary school principal in Gillette. With faculty members and students from the University of Wyoming’s law school, Bahige began talking to state officials about creating a program, according to an account by a professor who was involved.

In 2013, then-Gov. Matt Mead (R) wrote to federal officials, expressing Wyoming’s intent to pursue a resettlement program under which federal funds would be distributed through volunteer groups. But things began to change the following year, when Mead was up for reelection. An anti-refugee protest was held at the Wyoming Capitol. One gubernatorial candidate stirred fears about refugees bringing in HIV or Ebola.


The refugee resettlement idea fizzled, leaving Bahige and other proponents dispirited. Now, some say, it is hard to imagine reviving it in a state that has faced severe budget cuts amid the pandemic and plunging mining revenue — and that last year elected its most conservative legislature in history.

“I hope that with time people can look at what I’ve been able to overcome and how proud I am to call myself a Wyomingite,” Bahige said. “… Refugees can be contributing members of our community and help with diversification.”


Wyoming, with fewer than 600,000 people, was the slowest-growing state in the West over the past decade, and the state says the 2.3 percent population growth that did happen is attributable entirely to the addition of people of color, mostly Latinos. Cheyenne is home to a small number of Somali refugees who first resettled in Colorado. But advocates for immigrants say most do not stay long.

“Wyoming needs to do better, especially if they want human beings to move up there,” said Mohamed Salih, a Sudan native who for 33 years lived in Cheyenne, where he was a community college dean and frequently gave talks on Islam. He moved Denver more than a year ago. “I had friends, but in total, the community is really not welcoming to the other. And that is, I think, wedded in their conservative beliefs: We want to keep Wyoming as Wyoming — whatever that means.”