Bill Clinton, the Mariel Boatlift and Refugee Politics Today

In 1980, when 125,000 Cubans fled to the United States in the Mariel boat lift, some 25,000 of those refugees were housed for processing in Arkansas at Fort Chaffee. Locals feared the new arrivals. Some of the refugees rioted, and the footage of burning buildings was fodder for attack ads that helped defeat Arkansas’s young governor, Bill Clinton. Clinton went down with Jimmy Carter, the president who had sent the refugees to Arkansas. It was a lesson not lost on Asa Hutchinson, who is now the governor of Utah.,

It’s a lesson one that the 30 or so other governors who jumped on the anti-refugee bandwagon had learned as well. But Governor Hutchinson, wary as he is of the vetting process of refugees, is working with an Arkansas group that has brought hundreds of refugees to the state in the past few years.

In November 2015, there was no refugee resettlement of any significance in mostly red Arkansas. Catholic Charities, the single exception, was resettling about a dozen refugees a year, all people who were joining relatives already living in the state. Anti-refugee sentiment was so strong that in the same month, Governor Hutchinson tweeted: “As Governor I will oppose Syrian refugees being relocated to Arkansas.” But by September 2018, 112 refugees from seven countries had arrived since November 2016. Nearly 275 volunteers from more than two dozen congregations were working with them.

How did that happen? On November 13, 2015, terrorists killed 130 people in a coordinated series of mass shootings and suicide bombings in Paris, France. In Arkansas, Frank Head, director of Catholic Charities Resettlement in Arkansas, started getting hate emails and telephone death threats. He called in the police and the FBI, who tracked down the most egregious offenders.

Then Head’s phone started ringing again. This time, it was callers horrified at the anti-refugee vitriol being covered in the press. They wanted to know what they could do to help. Head received so many of these calls, he prepared a little elevator speech: “Thank you very much. We really appreciate your call, but our program is very small and there aren’t any Syrians scheduled to come here.” Then he would give callers a list of refugee organizations they could support. After the tenth time he’d rattled off that little speech, he stopped. “I thought, ‘This is ridiculous! People want to help refugees come to Northwest Arkansas and we’re telling them to go someplace else?’”

At about the same time, Clint Schnekloth, pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, in Fayetteville, was holding brainstorming meetings with his leadership team.

Schnekloth presented the Good Shepherd leadership team with a long list of ideas the congregation could focus on, that list included a refugee center in Northwest Arkansas. But it also was the only item on the list that everyone rejected. Opening such a center was something “none of us could get our heads around,” he said. But after a church supper in Advent, in the run-up to Christmas 2015, Schnekloth and Donna Davis, a member of the church board, sat down to talk. “We really should do something,” Schnekloth remembered one of them saying to the other. “We were sitting there and then we said, ‘Let’s go talk to Frank Head.’”

The result, a series of meetings in late 2015 and early 2016 that attracted increasing numbers of interested volunteers, many of them college students and recent graduates.

“There was this amazing synergy. Different churches, different faiths, different political leanings, civic groups,” recalled Head.

The movement steamrolled and in February 2016, Canopy Northwest Arkansas came into being under the auspices of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS). It’s one of nine U.S. State Department sanctioned refugee resettlement agencies. And even Governor Hutchinson got involved.

Federal funding for refugees comes through the states, so every state has some overworked staffer who is responsible for refugee resettlement. In Arkansas, that staffer is Dave Mills, program administrator for the Department of Human Services and the Division of County Operations. Mills and Canopy connected, and Mills arranged a meeting between Canopy and the governor.

“He came to Good Shepherd Church and had pie with us,” said Schnekloth. What could be more American than discussing your differences over a slice of pie? Though the two groups came to the meeting with opposing points of view, they found a way to work together, something that has become a pattern in Canopy’s encounters with this conservative state’s elected officials. The group has also met with both of the state’s U.S. senators, Tom Cotton and John Boozman, as well as with Representative Steve Womack. “Even the most rabid politicians we met with—like Tea Party people, who are ostensibly against immigration—first they would say, ‘How safe is it? How are we vetting them?’ and then, upon understanding the detailed and years-long vetting refugees undergo, they would turn around and say, ‘How can we help?’ ” Schnekloth told me. “It was the humanness of it.” And so it was with Governor Hutchinson, who continues to hold strong reservations about refugee resettlement but whose administration is nevertheless working with Canopy.

One problem Hutchinson had with refugee resettlement is that the state knows nothing about who is arriving and when they’re arriving. This was a particularly important concern for Hutchinson, who was the first undersecretary of Homeland Security for Border and Transportation Security under President George W. Bush. He had long felt that the Obama administration provided inadequate information about who these refugees were and when they were arriving. Ultimately, Canopy was able to assuage that concern.

The Importance of Communication

“The lack of communication was his biggest concern, especially when his number one priority is to keep people safe,” said J.R. Davis, the governor’s communications director. Still, Hutchinson is sympathetic to the refugees’ plight. Davis read me a quote from the governor explaining this stance, “Compassion should help drive what we do as Americans, but not blind us to the very real dangers that exist in this world.”

By September 2018, 112 refugees from seven countries had arrived since November 2016. Nearly 275 volunteers from more than two dozen congregations were working with them.

Kate Rice