By Karma Orfaly.
In 2015, FBI hate crime statistics reflected a 6% increase in hate crimes across the United States. In light of the fact that the data is almost 2 years old, and that the DOJ recognizes that the FBI hate crime statistics dramatically under-report the actual numbers of hate crimes, this increase is particularly concerning. One of the most alarming spikes evident in more recent data reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center in November of 2016 is in hate crimes that are classified as anti-immigrant. It is most disheartening that a community that has chosen this country as their home because of the values of freedom, democracy, and equal opportunity is the community most targeted by hate because of xenophobia, a feeling that certain cultures are antithetical to American values, or a feeling of general skepticism towards “the other.”
The immigrant community is a community that exudes strength. It is a community that left behind family, friends, and familiarity – all in hopes that they could one day provide a better future for their children. As the daughter of Syrian immigrants, I know about the strength and sacrifice of immigrant communities firsthand. My parents were born and raised in Damascus, Syria under the brutal regime of Hafez Assad, the father of current President, Bashar Assad. Passionate about languages, my father dreamed of becoming an Arabic teacher. However, like many young Syrians at the time, he knew that a career as an Arabic teacher would not be his ticket out of Syria. He wanted to live in a free and democratic society more than anything, and he instead studied medicine – a universal language – in order to provide a better future for his children. There is not a day that goes by that I am not appreciative of the sacrifice my parents made for my siblings and me. Like many immigrant parents, they instilled in me an appreciation for the democratic values in this country.
Oftentimes, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant/anti-refugee sentiment overlap. The largest spike evident in the FBI hate crime data is in hate crimes perpetrated because of bias or prejudice against Muslims. In 2015, there was a 67% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes. According to the Pew Research Center, 63% of Muslim Americans are immigrants – this means that a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes directly and negatively impacts immigrant communities. This hateful sentiment often affects communities of color who are targeted because of a perceived association with Islam. The Sikh community, for example, has often been targeted due to this perception. This xenophobia – an irrational fear of people from other countries – is devastating communities across the United States.
Statistics show that hate crimes often fluctuate with election cycles. In the week following the general election in 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center collected reports of hateful incidents across the country. Findings showed the group most targeted in that week was the immigrant community. There were a shocking 206 anti-immigrant incidents in that week alone. This was followed by 151 anti-Black incidents, 80 anti-LGBT incidents, 60 incidents of swastika vandalism, and 51 anti-Muslim incidents. Anti-Semitic incidents sharply increased during this election cycle as well – with Jewish Centers across the country becoming the recipients of bomb threats and vandalism.
In the face of this increase in hate, many organizations are tasked with responding to and confronting the hate directed at the communities they serve. One such example is an organization serving refugees resettling in a community of about 45,000 in Idaho – Twin Falls. Despite its size and idyllic setting in Southern Idaho’s Magic Valley region, Twin Falls is not immune from anti-refugee and xenophobic sentiment. The College of Southern Idaho’s (CSI) Refugee Center has been the recipient of criticism from various groups – much of which, according to CSI, has been from out of state sources. These out of state groups are notably anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant. Oftentimes, xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric that warns of “sharia law” accompanies this criticism, despite the fact that the majority of refugees resettled in Idaho are Christians from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (not that religious litmus tests should be relevant to immigration policy).
Twin Falls is also known for being the site of the world’s largest manufacturing plant – the Chobani yogurt company. The additional layer to this story is that Chobani Founder, President and CEO – Hamdi Ulukaya – is himself an immigrant from Turkey. He made headlines when he gave his employees 10% of the company in 2016. This move was well after the obvious success of the Chobani yogurt brand, a rare move among company CEOs. Most notably, 30% of Ulukaya’s employees are immigrants or refugees. The rhetoric spewed by those who are against immigration and refugees is that immigrants and refugees create a strain on the economy. In Twin Falls, however, despite the fact that Idaho comes in third in its acceptance of refugees per capita, the unemployment rate – at 3.1% – is lower than the State of Idaho’s unemployment rate at 3.4%, and substantially lower than the national average at 4.2%. Thus, there is no direct correlation between a large number of refugees and the unemployment rate.
In the face of fear mongering, the Twin Falls community has responded with an outpouring of support towards the refugee community. In one example of support among many, one woman, inspired by her Mormon faith, stood along the main bridge in Twin Falls holding up a sign that said “#We Welcome Refugees. I am the church too.” According to the Director of the CSI Refugee Center, Mr. Zeze Rwasama, the Refugee Center has been flooded with donations and volunteers. In his perspective, the “fake news” that has surrounded the refugee center, which originated from out of state sources has actually highlighted and amplified the message of the refugee center and has led to this increase in donations, at a faster rate than the canter can distribute.
The CSI Refugee Center has a specific way of responding to criticism, fear mongering, and hate. These responses have improved the Twin Falls community’s outlook on the refugee center and have fostered a culture of inclusion. The refugee center utilizes various resources, such as local newspaper and television programs dedicated to highlighting the work of the refugee center. CSI also dedicates resources to outreach programs in the community. The goal of these outreach programs is not only to increase the number of volunteers and assistance to the center, but also to correct any common misconceptions in the community at large. CSI does so by presenting to the community information on the vetting process – tackling this key issue head on. If appropriate, the refugee center sometimes takes refugees with them to these informational sessions to tell their stories. However, this is done with great caution to ensure that refugees feel comfortable sharing stories and are not negatively impacted by questions, which may sound accusatory or force an individual to relive any trauma he or she may have suffered from.
Mr. Rwasama also emphasizes the importance of working with law enforcement. When the refugee center is the unfortunate recipient of hate, which occurs most of the time in the form of a phone-call, the center immediately notifies police officers. This is important for communities to take note of because it is important for police officers to have an official record and police report. In Twin Falls, the police department and the refugee center’s relationship is so cooperative that many xenophobic comments against the refugee center also include allegations of corruption in the police department.
Mr. Rwasama also informed me of the process of getting a welcoming resolution introduced and passed in Twin Falls, Idaho. The Refugee Center was brainstorming a way to improve the community outlook towards the refugee center and they thought of introducing the resolution to the city council. However, they felt as though they needed more support from community leaders that are highly respected in Twin Falls and they wanted to further collect signatures in order to introduce the legislation to the city council. Soon after, a group of teenagers from the Boy Scouts in Twin Falls approached the refugee center and wanted to know more about becoming involved. Mr. Rwasama informed them that they are trying to get this welcoming resolution introduced and put on the city council’s agenda. The very next day, the Boy Scouts had managed to place it on the city council agenda.
The community responded remarkably well to the Boy Scouts when they presented at the first hearing. Mr. Rwasama and other leaders supportive of the refugee center made way for these young teenagers to take the lead on an issue they were passionate about, leaving the public to say “how can we refuse our kids?” At the second public hearing regarding the welcoming resolution, Mr. Rwasama noted that only 4 out of the 40 people scheduled to speak were against the resolution as a welcoming city. Many people at the council meeting emphasized Twin Falls’ history of accepting newcomers, immigrants, and business competition. The remains of the largest Japanese internment camp is just 15 miles north of Twin Falls – serving as a reminder to what happens when individuals succumb to fear mongering. The resolution passed unanimously.
Mr. Rwasama notified me of what he believed is the most effective way to respond to rallies hosted by people who are against the refugee center. The refugee center responds by informing the community and the public to completely ignore the rally instead of forming a counter-protest. Oftentimes, counter-protesting amplifies the message of xenophobic rallies. There have been multiple occasions where a KKK rally is planned, only about a dozen or so KKK members show up, and yet, the message is amplified because the hundreds of people that show up to protest the KKK essentially “put them on the map.” The policy of the refugee center is to wait for the rally to conclude and then, work to correct the misinformation that may have been spread by such xenophobic rallies. Then, later, the refugee center organizes a peaceful rally promoting unity among all citizens in Twin Falls.
Organizations representing minority groups across the United States might benefit from such tactics in their own communities. A Twin Falls approach – a combination of policy change, advocacy, and community outreach – are key to improving the status of minorities, immigrants and refugees across the country. At the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, The Stop Hate Project works to implement such approaches to ensure equal protection for all individuals, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, disability, or sexual orientation. Please contact us for further information as to how you can make a difference in your own community.
Karma Orfaly is a rising 2L at Georgetown Law. She is currently Publicity Co-Chair of Barristers’ Council’s Appellate Advocacy Division. She is also a member of the Georgetown Journal of Law & Modern Critical Race Perspectives. She graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX in 2015, where she majored in human rights and political science.