The House of Delegates committee on veterans affairs and homeland security invited a speaker from an anti-Muslim organization, designated as a hate group, to speak on refugee resettlement during a committee meeting Wednesday.
Brenda Arthur represented American Congress for Truth, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as the nation’s largest anti-Muslim hate group. The Southern Poverty Law Center is an Alabama-based organization that tracks hate groups and their activity.
Arthur said she was concerned about public safety and state money being spent on refugees during most of the approximate half hour that she spoke, until Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, noted that the organization had been designated as a hate group and asked her if she would support resettlement of Muslim refugees if she was satisfied with the vetting process, and if no state funds went to any refugees.
“There are problems with that distinct group,” she responded, referring to adherents of Islam, a religion of about 1.6 billion.
According to a 2011 New York Times profile of the American Congress for Truth founder, Brigitte Gabriel wrote in a 2008 book: “In the Muslim world, extreme is mainstream.” She also reportedly called Muslims “barbarians” and suggested they shouldn’t hold public office, according to the SPLC. Muslims around the world strongly reject violence in the name of Islam, according to research by the Pew Research Center.
Assistant Majority Whip Jim Butler, R-Mason, is chair of homeland security, and Delegate Roy Cooper, R-Summers, is chair of veterans affairs.
Committee members also heard from Monica Hamilton, from DHHR, and Mark Sliter, executive director of Catholic Charities of West Virginia, which assists in refugee resettlement. Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, questioned Sliter about state funding the organization receives, and later asked Hamilton to provide information on how much money is spent on refugee resettlement. Hamilton had previously said DHHR’s role is to check refugee documentation.
Arthur held up a white board that purportedly listed crimes committed by refugees, then later said she wasn’t aware of any crimes committed by refugees in West Virginia.
She also said she took issue with the state’s acceptance of people with “extreme mental illness” into the state.
“What about the protection for our citizens?” she said.
Native-born West Virginians are more likely to have severe mental illness than people from other states, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Refugees undergo the strictest screening of any class of immigrant to the United States. The process takes about 18 to 24 months.
Arthur also suggested that refugees would use West Virginians’ safety net funding, and also suggested that they would take jobs from West Virginians.
Sliter said that of 31 refugees his agency resettled in the last fiscal year, 14 were “employable adults.” Of those, two were stay-at-home moms and 12 were working, he said.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, most adult refugees are employed. Two-thirds of refugee men were employed during the 2009-2011 period, according to a 2015 fact sheet. More than half of refugee women were employed during the same period, the same rate as U.S.-born women.
The Migration Policy Institute also reports that while many refugees initially depend on public benefits, most become self-sufficient.
“Unlike most other groups of immigrants, refugees are immediately eligible for public benefits, and health insurance coverage,” the fact sheet states. “During their first five years in the United States, refugees are more likely than other immigrants and the U.S. born to receive public benefits. But benefits usage declines with length of residence, and after ten years, most of this gap closes.”
“Refugees are working,” Sliter said. “They bring tax dollars in. They pay their taxes.”
“It’s Matthew 25,” he added. “Welcome the stranger.”
Wednesday marked at least the second time in the past two years the House of Delegates has invited a speaker from an organization designated as a hate group. Last year, Kellie Fiedorek, with the anti-LGBT Alliance Defending Freedom, appeared as a legal expert before the House Judiciary Committee.
Catholic Charities is currently the only agency that helps to resettle refugees in West Virginia. The West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry has also been working with Episcopal Migration Ministries to establish a resettlement agency in Charleston. In December, their application was approved by the State Department.
Lynn Clarke, an organizer with the group, recently said that while they had anticipated the first arrivals would be in summer, that time frame is looking “unrealistic” and they are now anticipating the first arrivals will be in the fall.