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With Welcoming Stance, Conservative Utah Charts Its Own Course on Refugees

28 Mar

By Miriam Jordan

SALT LAKE CITY—Amid concerns over potential terrorists infiltrating the U.S., Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah has repeatedly pledged to keep the welcome sign hanging for refugees while most of his Republican counterparts want a review or pause in resettlement.

After the San Bernardino, Calif., and Paris attacks, Mr. Herbert met with national-security officials to better understand the refugee vetting process. Utah police, he said, have begun working directly with the state’s refugee communities to nurture ties with them and provide an “extra layer” of protection for Utah residents. He remains determined to keep doors open to refugees from Muslim countries.

“We are a compassionate people in Utah because we understand religious persecution,” said the governor in an interview, referring to the state’s history as the center of the Mormon religion. “We ought to keep out terrorists without keeping out people of a religious group.”

About two-thirds of Utah’s three million residents are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church organized in 1830 in New York state. Many have ancestors who were driven out of several states, where they were regarded as a threat, before settling in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.

Religious freedom is “embedded deeply in Mormon DNA,” said Patrick Mason, an American religion scholar at Claremont Graduate University in California.

GOP governors in many other states have adopted a different stance on refugees. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has appealed a federal judge’s ruling that deemed his suspension of resettlement of Syrians unconstitutional.

But Utah has a history of going against the grain of conservative or mainstream politics. Last year, state lawmakers agreed to highly criticized compromise legislation with gay-rights groups.

Of about 70,000 refugees who arrived in the U.S. annually in recent years, the State Department has sent about 1,100 to Utah a year, the majority from Muslim countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Roughly as many relocate to Utah from other states, drawn by a thriving economy—its 3.4% jobless rate is below the national average— and a welcoming environment.

“I don’t feel any hostility at all,” said Shakar Ali, a 24-year-old Kurdish Iraqi whose engineering studies are partly funded by a Utah real-estate mogul. “Wherever I am going, they offer help.”

President Barack Obama agreed to resettle 85,000 displaced people in the U.S. this fiscal year, including 10,000 Syrians. Among the 1,200 bound for Utah will be a still-unspecified number of Syrians.

When the refugee crisis intensified last year, the Mormon Church’s governing body directed members to give money and volunteer. An announcement Monday will remind Mormons “to join together to help refugees” in their communities. Business leaders, who had already committed millions of dollars, have been stepping up donations.

“We were refugees ourselves,” said Tom Lloyd, a Mormon commercial real-estate developer who created a foundation to assist refugees with a friend, financial adviser Jim Woodward. Their commitment also is informed by missionary work abroad, a rite of passage for young church members, who often see hardship close up, said Mr. Woodward, also a Mormon. “God is sending us lots of people to give us the opportunity to serve them here,” he said.

At the Latter-day Saint Humanitarian Center run by the Mormon Church, about 200 people, mostly refugees, work half the day preparing aid supplies that are shipped world-wide. The other half, they attend an English class. After a year, counselors help them find jobs in food services, warehousing and other areas.

Unlike some states, no citizen groups in Utah have organized anti-refugee demonstrations or petitions. But Utah’s embrace of newcomers hasn’t found universal support. Jonathan Johnson, a prominent Mormon businessman and a Republican, said that while he recognizes refugees contributed to America over the years, he doesn’t want Islamic State terrorists coming to the country under the guise of refugee status.

“Utah should immediately suspend the acceptance of Syrian refugees until we are sure the screening process works,” said Mr. Johnson, who is chairman of retailer and is challenging Mr. Herbert in his bid for re-election this year. “Utahns are extremely compassionate and generous people, but the governor needs to ensure refugees coming to Utah are not a danger to Utahns.”

Federally funded agencies help the newcomers find housing, work and secure certain benefits. But refugees often struggle with linguistic, educational and other barriers to becoming self-sufficient.

Last month, a Salt Lake City policeman shot and seriously wounded a 17-year-old Somali refugee, who law enforcement said refused to drop his weapon during an altercation with another person in a high-crime area. The incident spurred a protest over police use of force and accountability.

“This is a broad community issue rather than a refugee issue,” said Aden Batar, head of Salt Lake City’s Catholic Community Services, the agency that resettled the victim’s family when he was 5 years old.

Many Mormon business leaders say they are dedicated to helping refugees integrate into the wider community. Real-estate magnate H. Roger Boyer committed a million dollars a year to help newcomers earn college degrees. His nonprofit helps cover tuition, transportation and other items, like glasses and dental care.

“This is an underserved group who, with a little help, can improve themselves and contribute to the community and their families,” said Mr. Boyer, noting that his mission is to build “self-reliance,” a core Mormon value.“We are not trying to convert anyone,” he said.

Among the 150 young refugees his Refugee Education Initiative sponsors, several attend the University of Utah, including Mr. Ali, the Kurdish Iraqi; a pre-nursing student whose family fled Afghanistan; and a pre-pharmacy student from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mr. Boyer, whose Boyer Co. has construction projects in several states, said he will tap his Mormon connections in Arizona and Idaho, also home to large refugee populations, to replicate the program there.

Mormons “come together and raise resources right away,” said Shu Cheng, executive director of the Refugee & Immigrant Center, which offers employment, mental health and other services free of charge.

The center has benefited from the largesse of the Mormon Church and business community, including Messrs Lloyd and Woodward, who provide emergency funds for refugees in financial distress, such as to cover rent.

“We’re dedicated to filling gaps in the system,” said Mr. Lloyd.

Through their Good Samaritan Foundation, Messrs Lloyd and Woodward help pay the salaries of staff at a center that serves refugees. Many of them live in apartment complexes in an isolated neighborhood, and typically don’t have access to transportation.

On a recent afternoon, about 25 children ages 8 to 16 ate chicken nuggets, vegetables and peaches before getting homework help from volunteers at the Sunnyvale Neighborhood Center, which also offers English, parenting and citizenship classes.

A larger center is slated to open in another refugee enclave by year’s endThe businessmen are canvassing other Mormons to help fund eight more centers “as fast as we can,” said Mr. Lloyd, president of Terra Industries.

“People here help me with my work,” said Nyandeng, a 13-year-old Sudanese girl whose mother is a hotel housekeeper and father is a mechanic. “I like being around them.”

Messrs Lloyd and Woodward are negotiating to buy apartment complexes where refugees are concentrated. They then would offer the units at lower rent on the condition that refugees use the difference in savings toward a down payment on a home.

“Money isn’t a problem,” said Mr. Woodward. “We’ll find the money.”