MISSOULA -- As the first refugee family in decades was arriving in Montana, GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte mailed out fliers using a photo suggestive of a terrorist and urged a halt to refugee resettlement here.
One of two fliers the campaign said were sent statewide pictured Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock under an armed man with head draped in a scarf and claimed "Bullock supports bringing Syrian refugees into Montana.''
On the flip side, under a smiling photo of Gianforte, he says: “My heart breaks for those families torn apart by Radical Islamic Terrorists abroad and I feel we have a moral obligation to help. However, that obligation does NOT include settling unvetted refugees in our communities and homes here in Montana. As Governor, I’ll stand up to dangerous refugee programs.”
Mary Poole, who founded the community organization aiding with resettlement in Missoula, Soft Landing, said the reality for refugees is very different than the picture painted by the stock photo of an armed man on Gianforte’s flier.
“I’d be surprised if that photo was even a Syrian person at all, let alone a Syrian refugee,” she said. “It’s just really misinformation and it’s disheartening that people seeking a position of power would promote that misinformation and play off of such a persecuted population.”
In reality, she said most refugees arrive to their resettlement city carrying “one little blue plastic bag like a grocery bag” with a few papers and all their worldly possessions.
Campaign spokesman Aaron Flint said it is “sheer coincidence” that thousands of the fliers hit mailboxes the same week a refugee family of six from the Democratic Republic of the Congo arrived in Missoula.
The revival of resettlement office there has fueled protests and debate.
In the flier, Gianforte promises to ban refugees from countries with terrorism ties, stop any resettlement until vetting is fixed and to prevent attacks "like we've seen around the world.''
But governors have no authority to control immigration. Decisions about who can enter the U.S. are made by federal officials.
The flier is Gianforte’s latest shot at Bullock over an issue that first became political currency last fall when President Barack Obama proposed resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S.
The mailer’s wording matches rhetoric from conservative stump speeches nationwide, including from Donald Trump, who has called to block the resettlement of Muslims out of fear they could be Islamist terrorists.
A November letter signed by 30 governors, all but one of whom were Republicans, called for federal leaders to halt resettlement until the country’s vetting process could be strengthened.
Gianforte has criticized Bullock for not joining them.
Bill Swersey, who helps resettle refugees in several states coast-to-coast, said the Montana debate is playing out in campaigns across the country.
“The history of resettlement is that Democrats and Republicans have supported it almost without question. Unfortunately, a lot of the discussion is divided along party lines this year,” said Swersey, a spokesman for HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit that is one of the country’s nine resettlement agencies.
“We don’t want to resettle people in places where they’re not welcome, but the fact of the matter is communities all across the United States are welcoming refugees despite what their governors are saying.”
Between Oct. 1 and July 31, nearly 60,000 refugees from 75 countries were admitted into the United States, according to federal records. By comparison, millions of foreign nationals enter the country each year as tourists, students, workers or immigrants with much less security scrutiny.
Out of the nearly 750,000 refugees settled in the United States since 9/11, only three people have faced terrorism charges, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute last fall.
“It’s very difficult to get into the United States as a refugee,'' said Molly Short Carr, the new head of Missoula's refugee resettlement office. "It’s a complex process that’s in the hands of the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security. Refugees are the most vetted immigrant groups. The average processing time is about three years.
"We’ve admitted hundreds of thousands of refugees since the 1980s in the U.S. going back to the Hmong and Vietnamese," she said. "These are the people feeling the violence, not perpetrating the violence. These are the groups who are victims of ISIS.”
Poole said photos like the one on the Gianforte flier matter.
She noted that the 2015 photo of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up dead on a Turkish beach, helped sparked the push to bring resettlement back to Missoula, which had taken in Hmong and Russian refugees decades earlier.
As the first Congolese family arrived in Missoula on Thursday, a video and photo of a 5-year-old Syrian boy, covered in dust and blood after surviving a bomb blast, circulated on social media.
“Those are photos of refugees,” she said. “Families that are suffering. Families that have had relatives killed and are fleeing for their lives.”
The Congolese family resettled in Missoula had lived in a region where hundreds of Christians have been murdered by a rebel group identified by the United Nations as an Islamist terrorist organization with ties to Al Shabaab.
Speaking only through their spokesmen, neither Bullock nor Gianforte had a message for the newly arrived family.
Bullock has repeatedly taken a hands-off approach to the state’s debate about bringing refugees to Montana, noting that governors have very little authority to influence the federal resettlement process. He used the issue as an opportunity to cast Gianforte as someone who stretches the truth for political gain.
“As governor and as a father, the safety and security of Montana families, especially our kids, is always priority number one for Steve Bullock,” Montana Democrats spokesman Jason Pitt wrote. “It remains ever important to maintain a thorough vetting process to ensure Montana’s safety and security while honoring our responsibility to keep all families and kids safe. The fact that Greg Gianforte is misleading voters with fear—suggesting that any governor has the power to ban refugees — is dishonest and concerning."
Gianforte, meanwhile, has attacked Bullock’s stance as weak and putting Montanans at risk. The fliers and statements reflect ther campaign's assertions that Bullock has repeatedly failed to stand up to federal overreach.
“While this is predominately a federal issue, the governor could be an effective voice to stop Obama's Syrian Refugee Program – he is the former chairman of the Democratic Governor’s Association after all,” Flint wrote. “Seems he's more interested in protecting Obama than in protecting Montana.”
Flint said Gianforte was unavailable to comment about his newest fliers, citing campaign responsibilities in Colstrip.
The spokesman could not say how Gianforte would fulfill his promise to stop resettlement in Montana, nor which country’s refugees the Republican would ban given that many, not just Syrians, are fleeing terrorism in their own nations.
“This is not about refugees,” Flint said. “This is about ISIS, a terrorist organization which is dedicated to killing Americans.”
Missoulian reporter Kim Briggeman contributed to this report.