Littleton council narrowly affirms acceptance of refugees

4-3 vote continues practice of allowing people fleeing violence to be placed in city

David Gilbert
dgilbert@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 1/13/20

Littleton City Council narrowly approved a resolution to continue allowing foreign refugees to be resettled in the city, voting 4-3 at the Jan. 7 council meeting to join a wave of Front Range cities …

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Littleton council narrowly affirms acceptance of refugees

4-3 vote continues practice of allowing people fleeing violence to be placed in city

Posted

Littleton City Council narrowly approved a resolution to continue allowing foreign refugees to be resettled in the city, voting 4-3 at the Jan. 7 council meeting to join a wave of Front Range cities and counties affirming their commitment to refugee resettlement in response to a presidential order.

The resolution comes in response to Executive Order 13888, signed in September by President Donald Trump, which mandates that refugees fleeing violence or oppression in their home countries can only be resettled in communities that have explicitly consented in writing to their presence. The resolution does not prioritize Littleton for increased refugee resettlement, according to city documents.

Councilmembers Karina Elrod, Pam Grove, Scott Melin and Kelly Milliman voted in favor of the resolution, with Pat Driscoll, Carol Fey and Mayor Jerry Valdes voting against it.

Littleton joins numerous local cities and counties consenting to refugee resettlement in January, including Denver, Arvada, Centennial, Golden, and Arapahoe, Douglas and Jefferson counties. Aurora, Wheat Ridge, Boulder and other cities had resolutions on upcoming agendas as of Jan. 9. Gov. Jared Polis signed a statewide consent letter in mid-December.

Getting on with their lives

Littleton has had minimal involvement in refugee resettlement in previous years, City Manager Mark Relph told council at the Jan. 7 meeting.

“(Refugee resettlement) has been going on for many decades,” Relph said. “This is the first time local governments have ever been asked to approve this. We don't have any statistics about how many have resettled here historically.”

More than 60,000 refugees have been resettled in Colorado since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, according to state data. In the last two fiscal years, 408 have been settled in Arapahoe County, which has a population of more than 650,000. A majority of refugees in the past three years have come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma and Somalia, according to a fact sheet.

To be granted refugee status, a person must demonstrate they have a reasonable fear for their lives due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, said David Simmons, an Englewood-based immigration attorney, in a phone interview.

Refugees undergo rigorous screening, Simmons said.

“This is a group who have been through an extensive legal process, including thorough background checks," he said. "They are people who have suffered persecution and want to get on with their lives.”

Refugees go through a process different from people who apply for asylum at the southern border, Simmons said.

“To get asylum, you have to show up in a country and ask for it,” Simmons said. “Refugees are people who have waited for sometimes years in a refugee camp while they're vetted by international agencies.”

Refugee resettlement agencies, which are contracted through the federal State Department to assist refugees in finding housing, employment and other services, have until Jan. 21 to submit letters of consent from states and localities to the federal government to determine their funding for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

Beginning this summer, agencies will not be able to provide support and counseling to refugees who settle in communities that have not signed consent letters, said Jennifer Wilson, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee, one of three resettlement agencies operating in Colorado.

The executive order is being challenged in court, Wilson said, but refugee resettlement agencies need to ensure they're in compliance in case the order takes effect as planned in June.

Refugees receive direct assistance from resettlement agencies in their first 90 days in America, Wilson said, calling it a critical time for them to get on their feet.

“Once refugees are settled in the United States, they're free to move where they want,” Wilson said. “In communities that don't consent, you might have refugees who move there, but they just wouldn't be getting any support.”

'Shared values'

Councilmember Kelly Milliman said passing the resolution was in keeping with local values.

“Our newly adopted comprehensive plan mentions the word 'inclusive' throughout the document,” Milliman said. “It's a shared value among our citizens. I know it is… By signing this document, nothing changes. Let's continue sharing our kindness, compassion and inclusiveness with refugees who want to become fully participating members of our society.”

Approving the resolution was simply consenting to maintaining Littleton's status quo as a city welcoming to all, said Councilmember Karina Elrod.

“If a refugee has been coming to our community, they've been welcome,” Elrod said. “This is how we've been conducting business up until now.”

Mayor Pro Tem Scott Melin called the resolution an affirmation of patriotic virtues, and cited Littleton's historical support for immigrants through groups like the Littleton Immigrant Resources Center, which helps immigrants pursue citizenship through a variety of programs including English and civics classes.

“Voting yes on this resolution instantiates our stated local value of inclusiveness, and also our bedrock national values of freedom, humanitarianism and respect for the rights of the individual, including the rights of the freedom of religion and political opinion,” Melin said. “Littleton has historically accepted refugees for resettlement, and I see no reason why this should change.”

Councilmember Pam Grove did not comment on the matter during the meeting before voting to approve the resolution.

'It concerns me'

Mayor Jerry Valdes said he was worried council didn't know enough to pass the resolution.

“Yes, it's been happening over the years, but now there's something in writing saying oh yes, we'll take refugees,” Valdes said. “It concerns me. What are we really getting ourselves into?”

Valdes said he feared refugees could overwhelm Littleton's already tight housing market, and expressed concern for the impact on Littleton Public Schools, saying the schools are already facing looming budget cuts. LPS officials have said the budget cuts are due to stagnant enrollment rates causing a dearth of per-pupil funding.

President Trump capped the number of refugees admissible into the United States at 18,000 in 2020, down from 30,000 in 2019 and the lowest cap in the 40-year history of the Refugee Act. The refugee cap peaked at 232,000 in 1980, the first year of the act, according to federal data. The cap was 70,000 a year through much of George W. Bush's presidency, and under President Barack Obama peaked at 117,000 a year.

Councilmember Pat Driscoll asked if council could table the motion until a future date, but Relph said that would require a special meeting, as resettlement agencies needed the consent letters by Jan. 21. Driscoll made no other comments before voting against the resolution.

Councilmember Carol Fey said she had heard from residents upset that the city was taking a stance on a hot-button political issue, and others concerned refugees would be a burden on social services and would take up scarce housing.

Fey called the tight turnaround time on the resolution a plot by activists that “increases urgency and decreases scrutiny.”

Fey accused former mayor Susan Thornton, who spoke and emailed in favor of the measure and heads Immigrant Pathways Colorado, a nonprofit that supports immigrants pursuing citizenship, of making an “end run” around established council procedures to push the resolution onto council's agenda.

That's not true, said Wilson, the director of the International Rescue Committee. Wilson said she began reaching out to former mayor Debbie Brinkman in mid-October, and also communicated with Relph and Valdes shortly after the November election about the need for a resolution.

“Our original target was to have consent letters done by mid-December,” Wilson said. “We stepped up our efforts in December because we weren't seeing movement from cities.”

Coordinating the effort has proven tricky, Wilson said, because the executive order was ambiguous on how consent should be obtained from state and local governments.

Residents speak out

Residents who commented on the resolution painted a grim picture of the acceptance of refugees.

Local political fixture Carol Brzeczek claimed that other communities that have accepted refugees have reaped dire consequences.

“Refugees are creating financial strains on local programs, children are not speaking English, are creating problems for schools, test scores are going down, and social services can't keep up as refugees are eligible for welfare,” Brzeczek asserted. “I don't care what Arapahoe County has done, or Centennial, or if Susan Thornton endorses it or Mother Teresa.”

Resident Cheryl Bruns claimed that refugees increase crime rates and can cause “social disintegration.”

Bruns' husband Don said council shouldn't pass the resolution until the city conducts an analysis that examines how refugees impact “neighborhood character changes” and the community's “social and cultural fabric.”

“We risk losing what makes us value our city, what sustains it, and our sense of place,” Bruns said. “There are a number of people in our city that are not yet well integrated and this would only increase that burden.”

Numerous academic studies have found that communities with increasing numbers of immigrants do not experience higher crime rates, according to Scientific American. The vast majority of refugees are employed within a few months of arriving in America, according to a fact sheet. A 2017 study by the Colorado Department of Human Services found that for every dollar invested in refugees, the state receives a $1.23 return in tax revenue.

Thornton touted Littleton's history of supporting immigrants through the group she heads, Immigrant Pathways Colorado, which provides grants to cover the cost of citizenship applications, English classes and vocational training.

“We want these people to be on their feet and be contributing taxpayers,” Thornton said. “Littleton has a long history of being a welcoming community.”

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