While the Helena mayor’s speech to what critics call an anti-Muslim hate group has raised questions about his stance on refugee resettlement, both mayoral candidates say the global refugee crisis is not a city issue.
“There’s a minimal role for state government. Really, local governments are not part of the process,” Mayor Jim Smith told the Independent Record last week.
Wilmot Collins, a Liberian refugee running against Smith for mayor, said, “Helena doesn’t have a role in addressing the refugee crisis.”
“Refugees are handled by the federal government and the nine agencies that have been given the authority to handle refugees,” Collins said. “No local government can do that.”
Smith has been criticized in the liberal-leaning blog “The Montana Post,” as well as some letters to the editor published by the Independent Record, for his speech at a meeting hosted by Virginia-based ACT for America last year in Helena. The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy nonprofit that specializes in civil rights issues, has classified ACT as an anti-Muslim hate group “because it pushes wild Muslim conspiracy theories, denigrates American Muslims and deliberately conflates mainstream and radical Islam.”
Smith told the Independent Record he was not aware the organization was listed as a hate group when he attended the meeting, and said, “I’m not sure I agree with the views of either ACT or the SPLC.”
The mayor said he was invited to the meeting by a friend, and he wanted to hear the group’s concerns. He did not plan to speak at the event, he said.
“It was noted by people in the audience that there was an elected official there, and they wanted to know what my thoughts were, and I felt like they were entitled to hear from me,” he said. “ … I didn’t go there knowing that I was going to say anything. I just mainly went to listen and try to learn something.”
A March 31, 2016, tweet by Tim Ravndal, who was ousted as president of the Big Sky Tea Party Association in 2010 for making statements that implied he condoned violence against homosexuals, alleged that Smith told attendees he would not sign off on welcoming refugees to Helena.
Smith said he told the group he would not be comfortable sending a letter to the federal government offering to host refugees, which is something that members of the Missoula City Council and Missoula County Commission have done.
He told the Independent Record he doesn’t believe Helena has the resources to become an “official host city,” noting that the state is able to provide only a limited amount of financial assistance to refugees for a short amount of time. He said it is important to have “organizational and human infrastructure” in place for refugees.
“Helena is not Missoula, and vice versa. Missoula is larger, more populous, more diverse, more fluid, more cosmopolitan than Helena,” he said. “Missoula has a long history of working with refugees, going back to the 1970s and the resettlement of people from Southeast Asia. Missoula has an organization in place, Soft Landing Missoula, with the organizational and human infrastructure required to deal successfully with people coming there as refugees.”
Smith added that Helena is already home to some refugees.
“Helena is accepting refugees,” he said. “There’s a couple from Cuba here, a nice family. So if folks get here however, that’s great.”
Collins settled in Helena and became an American citizen after fleeing Liberia’s civil war.
He has publicly spoken in the past about his experiences as a refugee, and how he is grateful to have a second chance. During a “Lunch and Learn” event hosted by the YWCA of Helena last year, Collins encouraged people to challenge those who speak negatively about refugee resettlement efforts.
Though Collins believes some people have misconceptions about refugees consuming too many resources, he said the federal government and the nine resettlement agencies across the United States are responsible for decisions about where they end up.
“If an organization in Helena wants to be like Soft Landing and organize themselves in that way, they will then have to go to one of those nine agencies,” he said, reiterating that “the city is not involved in that.”
When asked whether he would encourage the federal government to send refugees to Helena if elected as mayor, Collins said “it would depend on the community.”
“If the community is willing to do that, I’ll support what the community wants,” he said. “But I’m not going to go forward with it unless the community wants to.”
Collins declined to comment on Smith's speech to ACT for America, noting he wanted to keep his campaign clean.