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Utah wants more refugees? That surprises everyone but the people living here

Gov. Gary Herbert smiles as he holds a lifetime achievement award from Utah’s refugee community during the Refugee Employment Conference at the Sheraton Salt Lake City Hotel on Friday, May 31, 2019.
Gov. Gary Herbert smiles as he holds a lifetime achievement award from Utah’s refugee community during the Refugee Employment Conference at the Sheraton Salt Lake City Hotel on Friday, May 31, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The nuance of Utah’s conservative politics once again baffles a national audience convinced that all political affairs fall neatly into uncompromising boxes.

The Washington Post reacted on Monday to a letter sent from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order allowing states and cities to veto refugee resettlements. It’s the first time the executive branch has handed down such authority to local governments, and it comes amid the Trump administration’s plan to vastly reduce the number of refugees the U.S. will take in next year.

Gov. Herbert’s response: Dear President Trump, please send us more refugees.

National analysts’ response: Wow, Utah dares to defy a Republican president.

The surprise is somewhat justified. Utah is one of the nation’s most conservative and homogeneous states. Herbert aligns with the president most of the time, as The Post reports, and the state has voted for a Republican president in every election since 1968.

But Herbert’s letter didn’t shock many Utahns. “I have to be honest: I don’t have any idea why it’s a partisan issue nationally. It’s never been one here,” said Brad Wilson, Utah’s Republican speaker of the House, as quoted in The Washington Post. “Regardless of political party, we value these people.”

The Post reports Utah is home to about 60,000 refugees, hailing from places across the globe. It also notes how Utah prizes a smooth and supportive transition for the newcomers:

“Unlike in states where refugees get only a few months of support, new arrivals in Utah have a case manager who helps guide them for two years. When refugees take their driver’s license test, an interpreter can come along for the ride. A state-run training center links new arrivals with available jobs and helps them boost their skills — everything from cooking to coding.”

Last month, shortly after Herbert sent his letter to the White House, the Deseret News Editorial Board reaffirmed Utah’s commitment to welcoming the persecuted and weary travelers:

“Herbert has shown that Utah isn’t going to let politics interfere with humanity, or with paying forward a benefit that allowed so many nonnative settlers to find safety, security and opportunity here.

“A spokesman for the governor said refugees ‘make friends, get jobs, contribute to their communities and become a beautiful part of the fabric of our state.’

“We hope it is ever so.”