Arkansas Republican legislators have usually deferred to Gov. Asa Hutchinson since his election in 2014 cemented the state party’s newfound dominance. Such was not entirely the case Monday, and the catalyst was the same one that drives so much of politics here and everywhere: what to do about the “others.”
In this case, the “others” are 50-55 refugees who legally settle in Arkansas annually after escaping hardship in foreign lands.
The issue came to the forefront after President Trump said states could choose to accept or reject refugees, and Hutchinson told the State Department that Arkansas would continue accepting them, like all states so far other than Texas. The Washington County judge and Fayetteville and Springdale mayors also provided their required notifications that they would welcome refugees.
Hutchinson explained his reasoning before the House and Senate City, County and Local Affairs Committees Monday. He said he had opposed a settlement of Syrian refugees here four years ago, but the Trump administration has tightened the vetting process and focused on welcoming those escaping war or religious persecution, and those who have assisted U.S. counterterrorism efforts. He said refugees usually become quickly self-sufficient and, by the Trump administration’s own reckoning, are a net positive for the economy.
To bolster his case, he introduced refugees including Lusia Akilimali, who fled Congo for Kenya with her husband and waited 18 years to be resettled. In a Kenyan refugee camp, she opened a small grocery store, her husband planted a Baptist church, and they adopted two Congolese orphans. After resettling in Arkansas in 2018, she became a certified nursing assistant and is employed at a senior center. Her husband works for a Springdale manufacturing company, while their son is working toward an engineering degree.
That story did not sway Republican Sens. Trent Garner of El Dorado, Gary Stubblefield of Branch, and Terry Rice of Waldron.
Garner, an attorney and former aide to Sen. Tom Cotton, noted that under the law, the refugees can settle within 100 miles of those Washington County destinations, to which Hutchinson replied they actually can then move anywhere in this free country. Garner urged local communities to take steps to resist.
Stubblefield, the Senate committee chair, took issue with Hutchinson’s policies in a line of questioning – well, they really weren’t questions – that drew applause several times from some in the audience. He said refugees are a tax-funded cost to the U.S. government who become eligible for public benefits while hungry Arkansans and veterans struggle. Even with strong vetting, a dangerous refugee could slip through the process.
Stubblefield said no one would object to immigrants who learn English and adopt American culture, but too many don’t assimilate and in fact change American culture.
“Every morning when I wake up and turn on the national news, sometimes I ask myself the question, ‘Am I still in the United States of America?’ Because I hear some of the craziest ideas, and I wonder where they’re coming from,” he said.
Stubblefield did not elaborate on those crazy ideas, nor did he explain how 50-55 refugees coming to Arkansas annually could be responsible for them. They’re just part of the “others.” Ironically, Lusia Akilimali’s entrepreneurial, church planting and adopting family seems like it was American (and potentially Republican) long ago. The Akilimalis just were born elsewhere.
That last argument aside, assimilation and public safety are legitimate policy questions, and lawmakers should not hesitate to challenge any chief executive who makes this kind of unilateral decision.
Rice, however, made it personal.
While complaining about legislators being uninformed about Hutchinson’s decision – again, a legitimate concern – Rice asked about a recent state economic development trip to China where the governor was accompanied by his son, Asa Hutchinson III, whose law firm has foreign business clients. He asked Hutchinson if his son has any dealings with Canopy of Northwest Arkansas, the private subcontractor that helps resettle refugees. He doesn’t.
Rice’s inquiry had nothing to do with refugees and could have been asked in a private setting. I’ve never seen a legislator ask such a question to the governor’s face in public. But issues like this stir passions.
Factions inevitably compete in political parties, particularly ones this dominant, and now Hutchinson is well into his second term. Let’s see how this divisive issue affects his dealings with some of his own party’s legislators.
Meanwhile, the question remains: What to do about refugees and other others?
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.