SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert is asking fellow Republican President Donald Trump to send more refugees to Utah, saying the state founded by religious refugees fleeing persecution is “far from reaching” the limit on how many people can successfully be resettled here.
The governor’s request, in a letter dated Oct. 24, follows a decision by the Trump administration slashing the number of refugees the United States will accept from the current limit of 30,000 to 18,000 that also included an executive order requiring state and local governments to provide written consent to receive refugees.
“Gov. Herbert is deeply concerned that fewer refugees have been permitted into the United States in recent years,” his spokeswoman, Anna Lehnardt, told the Deseret News Friday. She said the governor hopes the president will “carefully consider” his request.
“We hope he will help us increase the number of refugees sent to Utah, so that we can offer a new homeland to the same number of individuals and families that we have in the past. Even if other states choose to use the president’s new policies to refuse entrance to refugees, we will not,” Lehnardt said.
Utah has historically accepted and resettled more than 1,000 refugees annually, the governor said in his letter.
“Those experiences and hardships of our pioneer ancestors 170 years ago are still fresh in the minds of many Utahns.” — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said in letter to President Trump
“Unfortunately, that number has dropped for the past two years and is on track to decrease more this year. We know the need has not decreased and are eager to see the number of admittances rise again.”
Aden Batar, director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Community Services of Utah, said about 1,300 refugees were resettled in Utah in 2016. After Trump took office in 2017, that number declined to less than 800 and has been at less than 500 in both 2018 and the current year.
“It is our responsibility to do the right thing, to welcome these strangers who are fleeing and don’t have anyone else to help. I think the United States has a moral obligation to be the leader in accepting more refugees,” said Batar, himself a Somalian refugee.
“For me and my family, we were saved. We came from a war-torn country and we didn’t know where to go. When we left our country, all we were looking for was a safe place,” said Batar, who was brought to Utah in 1994 with his wife and then two children through the same program he now leads.
Coming to Utah, was “he best thing that could have happened for us and many others who came the same as we did,” he said. Now a father of four, including a son who earned a graduate degree and is a chemical engineer, said the state is the place where his dreams for his family came true.
“Utah is our home. I’ve lived here half of my life. I’m a Utahn and no one can take that away from me. I will never forget all the help that we received. All we can do is pay it forward,” Batar said.
He praised Herbert’s leadership on the refugee issue and said Utah is “well-known in the nation as one of the most welcoming states ... I think that highly speaks of Utah. Our governor carried that message, sending it to the White House, letting the president know this is what Utah wants to do.”
Herbert, who is not seeking reelection next year after serving for more than a decade as governor, said the state’s approach to refugees is informed by its “unique history.” Utah was founded by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who headed west after being driven out of the Midwest.
“Those experiences and hardships of our pioneer ancestors 170 years ago are still fresh in the minds of many Utahns,” the governor wrote. “As a result, we empathize deeply with individuals and groups who have been forced from their homes and we love giving them a new home and a new life.”
Refugee resettlement is something Utah does “quite well,” he said in his letter. “Those refugees who resettle in Utah have become integrated and accepted into our communities. They become productive employees and responsible citizens” and contribute to civic institutions and help serve more recent refugees.
The governor also said in the letter he recognizes “that there is a logical limit to how many refugees can be successfully integrated into a state or nation in a given period of time. However, in Utah we are far from reaching that limit.”
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is running for governor in 2020 along with a number of other Republicans, tweeted Friday, “I am grateful to be part of this administration. @GovHerbert is a great man,” along with a copy of Herbert’s letter to the president.
State House Democrats sent a similar request to the president and administration officials a year ago, asking that the White House continue to resettle refugees at what had previously been set as an admissions ceiling of 45,000.
Their letter cited the 2010 Utah Compact, a set of principles on immigration endorsed by political, business, law enforcement and religious leaders, and said, “Maintaining our commitments to welcoming a reasonable number of refugees is consistent with these values.”
The minority party in the Utah House tweeted a response to the governor’s letter Friday, “Glad that @GovHerbert agrees with us.”
Four years ago, Herbert chose not to join a majority of governors around the country who were refusing to accept Syrian refugees in the wake of recent terrorist attacks. At the time, some Republican state lawmakers unsuccessfully pushed for taking a stand against the governor’s position.
The Trump administration’s new requirement that state and local governments sign off in writing before refugees can arrive is seen as allowing a state to ban refugees even if a city wants to accept them — or the reverse, an unprecedented veto power, according to a report in The Washington Post last month.
A Herbert spokesman told the newspaper for the story that Utah’s “refugees make friends, get jobs, contribute to their communities and become a beautiful part of the fabric of our state. We are glad they are here, and welcome more of them.”
Utah’s governor made national news in 2017 for posting a photo on Instagram of refugees being greeted by hundreds of well-wishers at the Salt Lake City International Airport with the caption, “A great Utah moment as we welcome Utah’s newest pioneers, a family of Pakistani #refugees.”