Speaker Knudsen Defends Gianforte’s Illegal, Immoral Effort to Exclude Refugees

Women and children among Syrian refugees striking at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015.

Perhaps recognizing that their message of distorting Montana’s economy and blocking access to public lands isn’t exactly resonating with Montana voters, Greg Gianforte and his surrogates have moved to a new line of attack: pandering to base fears and xenophobia to encourage voters to support their candidate. In the past week, Mr. Gianforte has decided to campaign on his opposition to Syrian immigrants, ignoring both the Bible he uses as a club against the LGBTQ community and the Constitution which makes immigration a federal, not state, matter to do so.

In an transparently coordinated rollout, other Republicans joined him this week, but few served up anything comparable to the hot mess of bigotry and illogic that House Speaker Austin Knudsen had printed in the Montana Standard today.

Knudsen opens with the story of his family’s migration, the plucky story of his great-grandfather’s arrival in Montana. Knudsen commends his ancestor’s willingness to “follow the law,” perhaps unaware that at that time the law was deeply racist, with specific exclusions imposed on Chinese and Japanese immigrants. By 1924, a few years after the arrival of the

The Gianforte-Knudsen Ideology
The Gianforte-Knudsen Ideology
elder Mr. Knudsen, the US had imposed a repugnant quota system that, among other things, outright banned immigrants who were “Arab” or “Asian.” Deference to the law is a problematic position when the law is no better than the xenophobes who write them, and it’s hard to imagine anyone other than a supporter of racist ideologies endorsing the system in place when Mr. Knudsen’s and my great-grandfather arrived from Scandinavia.

It’s also a red herring, as the Syrian immigrants Mr. Knudsen is condemning are certainly following the law. In 1980, the United States adopted the Refugee Act, which was specifically designed to create a legal pathway for refugees to come to the United States to flee persecution, war, and genocide. Perhaps those lawmakers still remembered the American refusal to accept Jewish refugees before the Holocaust, perhaps they were just embracing the Christian doctrine so eloquently expressed in Matthew that one must care for the least fortunate, or perhaps they were just less willing to pander to win votes than Mr. Knudsen and Mr. Gianforte, but surely the United States, with our vast intelligence and police power is as well-equipped today as it was almost 40 years ago to accept the victims of horrific conflicts.

Knudsen writes:

They are being unfairly moved to the front of the line, given privileged status, and being placed in our heartland at a record rate. There are no requirements that these refugees take courses in U.S. history, civics, or English, as is required of foreigners seeking U.S. citizenship today.

Yes, refugees are probably receiving a somewhat expedited process. It turns out that you can’t accept a Syrian child as a refugee when he’s washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean after his family desperately tries to flee a war zone that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

From there, Knudsen moves into outright xenophobia, painting all Muslims with a brush so broad that his rhetoric wouldn’t be out of place at a Klan rally. He writes:

In fact, most of them are tacitly encouraged to bring their culture with them, and are now demanding that we assimilate to them. Much of this Muslim culture is foreign and strange to us. Our culture doesn’t require our women to cover themselves head to toe. We don’t treat our women as second-class citizens, and not allow them to speak or testify in court. We don’t teach our sons that it is appropriate to beat their wives if they are disobedient.

The claim that “Muslim culture” is strange to us is precisely the claim that was used by racists in America’s dark history of immigration to exclude Asians and limit the applications of Eastern Europeans. It ignores the the vast variety of beliefs, experiences, races, countries, and cultures that comprise people of the Islamic faith. Most importantly, it ignores the fact that refugees are fleeing the kinds of horrific laws that Knudsen is using to justify the exclusion of refugees—people who will die if the most powerful nation on the Earth, one stepped in Christian rhetoric, if not practice, fails to act.

It’s also worth noting that a country consumed with endemic violence and sexual violence against women is hardly in a position to lecture people who practice Islam. The claim that Muslims refugees mistreat women in their society ignores Mr. Knudsen’s party and its assault on the rights of women, its blind eye to violence against them, and its recognize their political and economic equality.

Mr. Knudsen also repeats the lie that Syrian refugees will come to the United States without proper background checks. He and Mr. Gianforte want Montanans to believe that President Obama will bring thousands of people to the United States, “unvetted” in any way. That’s just a lie. The process for Syrian refugees to come to the United States is incredibly arduous and thorough, and most of the people being considered for resettlement have been in the process so long that they began it before the rise of the Islamic State. As Devon Cone writes in Foreign Policy:

Less than 1 percent of the global population of refugees will ever even be considered for resettlement and undergo an initial interview by UNHCR. Out of the 59.5 million displaced people in the world today — the largest number to date since World War II — approximately 19.5 million are refugees, which means they meet a high standard of refugee criteria. Since 2011, the United States has accepted approximately 75,000 refugees for resettlement yearly, and the plan is to increase the number to 85,000 next year, with 10,000 originating from Syria. This means that each year, the United States has accepted approximately .36 percent of the world’s refugees through a rigorous resettlement process.

The last note about Mr. Knudsen’s piece is that, filled with intolerance and hatred though it may be, it’s actually what’s missing that fatally undermines the piece. He approvingly notes that Mr. Gianforte “opposes efforts to relocate refugees” before brazenly asking for a vote based on the issue. Of course, what neither Mr. Knudsen nor Mr. Gianforte have ever been able to articulate is exactly what a governor would do to stop resettlement. Steeped in absolutist rhetoric about the Constitution as they are, surely Mr. Knudsen knows that immigration issues are federal policy—and there simply are no mechanisms by which a governor, no matter how badly he wants to, can restrict the movement of people in our country.

We are a nation where anyone has the right to travel freely. Interested in history as he, surely Mr. Knudsen knows what kinds of countries have imposed travel restrictions on people based on their ethnic, political, and religious identities throughout history. It’s unfathomable that he thinks some kind of similar system should be imposed on religious people here.

My family has only been in Montana since about 1880. They came as immigrants fleeing the hunger and oppression they faced in Ireland, as foresters and fishermen from Norway hoping to make new prosperous lives for their families, as French people drawn by the endless wild spaces of Canada and Montana. They helped create the kind of state that welcomed people from all over the world, recognizing that the only way to break down the prejudices and misinformation contained in Mr. Knudsen’s piece is to meet and interact with those it’s all too easy to demonize as the Other.

I have to believe that we’re better than this latest Republican effort to divide us, to nakedly seek votes for xenophobia. I have to believe that the people of Montana will open their arms and hearts to human beings much like ourselves who simply want to give their families a chance to survive.

And we’re certainly better than politicians willing to lie about refugees and rely on rhetoric we should have long abandoned about people from the rest of the world.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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