Afghan refugee resettlement Montana
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shows a picture of his children to a young Afghan refugee outside Hangar 5 at Ramstein Air Base where he held a virtual 20-nation ministerial meeting on the crisis alongside his German counterpart in Germany, September 8, 2021. Credit: Olivier Douliery / Pool via REUTERS

State and federal elected officials responded with mixed messages Thursday to the news that 75 Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban will be resettled in Missoula over the coming weeks. Roughly 37,000 Afghan refugees will be coming to other states across the U.S. 

The U.S. State Department notified state and local leaders on Wednesday about the number of refugees they should expect. The notification prompted strong statements from Montana politicians, including many who said welcoming Afghan refugees is morally correct after a chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces in July and August.

Gov. Greg Gianforte slammed the Biden administration in a statement Thursday, calling the withdrawal “ill-planned” and “catastrophic.” The process, he said, left American citizens vulnerable and abandoned Afghan allies who supported U.S. troops. 

“Montana welcomes our fully-vetted Afghan allies who worked alongside us, have left their homes in the face of the Taliban’s reemerging, merciless terror, and seek freedom and safety,” Gianforte said.

The governor’s message was echoed by Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, both of whom threw their weight behind the resettlement in separate statements Thursday. 

“These folks helped save American lives on the battlefield and Montana will welcome them,” Tester wrote.

Through a spokesperson, Daines also critiqued the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal and said he believes in a rigorous vetting process for refugees. 

“We also need to honor our troops’ wishes and support those who put their lives at risk to assist U.S. service members, and the Senator encourages Montanans to welcome the properly vetted brave men and women, our allies, to the state,” the statement said.

“This former refugee cannot wait to welcome them to Montana. Hopefully they’ll get involved in our communities and enrich our lives with their experiences and culture.”

Helena mayor Wilmot Collins

Those words of support were in sharp contrast to the reaction of Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale, Montana’s freshman at-large congressman. In a statement released Thursday morning, Rosendale cast doubt on the Biden administration’s ability to sufficiently vet the refugees who will be resettled in the U.S., given the rapid timeline of the withdrawal. 

“I have advocated that we should try and settle these individuals in other countries around Afghanistan that share their values and culture, especially if we can not ensure proper vetting,” Rosendale’s statement said in part. “As elected officials, it is our duty to protect the citizens we represent — and I will not allow this Administration to compromise the safety of Montanans.”

According to a transcript of a briefing for senior government officials released Tuesday by the U.S. State Department, the refugees in the process of being resettled are undergoing biometric and biographic screenings conducted by intelligence and counterterrorism professionals, the Department of Homeland Security and the  Department of Defense, as well as the FBI and other intelligence partners.

“The U.S. Government has worked with urgency and with care to enhance the screening and vetting operations to make them not only more efficient, but without compromising any national security,” the transcript said.

Rosendale’s position drew pointed criticism from current and former Montana officials, including Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, who himself settled in Montana after leaving Liberia.

“This former refugee cannot wait to welcome them to Montana,” Collins wrote on Twitter. “Hopefully they’ll get involved in our communities and enrich our lives with their experiences and culture.”

State Sen. Ken Bogner, R-Miles City, a veteran and supporter of refugee resettlement, voiced his own perspective on the duty of the U.S. to protect its foreign allies.

“Having been raised in MT I learned that when you make a commitment to someone and shake their hand, you honor it,” Bogner wrote. “That’s what we did with Afghans that put their lives at risk to help our government and military, I hope we can remember our Montana values and welcome those refugees.”

According to the news site Axios, the states surrounding Montana range widely in how many refugees they will be accepting. Wyoming and South Dakota are not currently reported to be receiving any refugees, while North Dakota is slated to take 49. Idaho is accepting 420.

Montana is the fourth-largest state in the country with the 44th-largest population, according to the Montana Office of Tourism. It has one refugee resettlement office in Missoula, a local branch of the International Rescue Committee that was reopened in 2016 after initially working to resettle Hmong refugees throughout the 1980s. 

IRC Missoula expects arrivals to begin as soon as Oct. 1. While all of the 75 refugees will likely be resettled in Missoula, IRC Deputy Director Eamon Fahey said the national resettlement is “evolving,” and refugees may eventually be resettled in other Montana communities as well. Fahey said he doesn’t know how many of the 75 refugees are children or adults.

“IRC Missoula is excited to play a role in getting vulnerable Afghans out of harm’s way, and our staff, partners, and community looks forward to providing these Afghans a Montana welcome to their new home,” Fahey said.  

This story was updated Sept. 17, 2021, to include comment from the International Rescue Committee in Missoula.

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.