The Pro-Refugee Republican Governor

Utah went solidly for President Trump in 2016. Its six electoral votes have always gone to the Republican candidate for the past half century. Its governor, Gary Herbert, is both Republican and Mormon; he spent two years as a missionary in the eastern U.S. after graduating from high school and then attended Brigham Young University.

But when the anti-Syrian refugee bus with 30 governors—all but one of them Republican—started rolling, Herbert wasn’t on it. He is pro-refugee, going so far as to welcome refugees to Utah with this Instagram post, in which he called arriving refugees from Pakistan Utah’s “newest pioneers.”

Herbert told The Salt Lake Tribune that “Utahns are well known for our compassion for those who are fleeing the violence in their homeland, and we will work to do all we can to ease their suffering without compromising public safety.”

How the heck did this happen?

Well, to hear Gov. Herbert tell it, it’s because Utahns are “compassionate, loving people.” Like any good governor, he’s his state’s top cheerleader. He told me in an interview last spring that Utah tops in the nation for volunteerism, financial donations and optimism. He also pointed out, “We have 65,000 refugees in our state.”

One reason Utah is so welcoming to refugees is because of shared experience. The state’s first settlers were fleeing persecution and terror, the governor said, “They were killed, burned out of their homes, cast out and looking for a safe haven,” he said. Because of that, Utahns understand the plight of many of today’s refugees, according to the Governor.

Religion is part of it, too.

“God is the father of us all,” the Governor said. “And that means that we’re brothers and sisters and have to take care of each other as best we can.”

Private sector volunteerism is quintessentially Republican, according to this savvy politico. Republicans don’t believe that the government takes care of everything for us. It can’t afford to. He said his administration’s credo is “I want to have government off your backs and out of your wallets.” He referred me to Marvin Olasky’s 2000 book “Compassionate Conservatism,” with a forward written by then presidential hopeful George W. Bush. The book is seen as the blueprint for Bush’s philosophy, that religious faith is essential to promoting welfare programs.

Faith is unquestionably a major motivator for refugee resettlement, from the religious origins of most of the resettlement agencies approved by the government to church volunteers in the trenches.

Faith is particularly relevant in Utah, which is more than 60 percent Mormon. And Mormons are a veritable fire hose when it comes to volunteerism. But plenty of other denominations have stepped up to help. In Utah, as in all the communities I cover in this book, helping refugees transcends religion and politics. People of all faiths and political beliefs, those of not faith, those who ignore politics, all come together on this issue.

But I had a question for Governor Herbert. How does he reconcile these differences between his own religious beliefs that you should welcome the stranger and your party leaders’ efforts to let fewer and fewer refugees into the country?

Governor Herbert talked with me candidly about disagreeing with the Trump administration, but began by staking out a little common ground. “This administration is easier to work with from the perspective of the Intermountain West because it recognizes states’ rights,” he said. “But there are some things that we disagree on.”

The Trump administration has used security concerns as a major reason for its travel bans, restricting travel from several majority- Muslim countries. “The fact that refugees pose a danger is a myth,” Herbert said. He agreed security is important, but refugees aren’t the threat. “There are all kinds of ways to get into this country,” he said. And one of the hardest ways to get in is as a refugee. “It takes two years and 26 steps,” he said. And when they finally make it through the gauntlet, they find support in Utah.

“We don’t just say, ‘Good luck, hope things work out.’ We have a proactive program to help people get skills and become a part of the community,” Herbert said.

Kate Rice