Demonstrators by the thousands crowded the Idaho Capitol steps and mall in downtown Boise Nov. 21 to show their support for—and opposition to—Syrian refugee resettlement in Idaho.
"I don't really thing it's as much an issue as it is compassion," said Chance Fuerstinger, who was holding a sign in Arabic that read, "Welcome."
"You have to open your hearts to [refugees]," he said.
Fuerstinger's sentiment was echoed by dozens of people at the rally, where speakers discussed the urgent need for the United States to admit refugees from war-torn regions of the world, including Syria, and hear from refugees who have already settled in Idaho.
One of the speakers was Noora Muhamad, a Boise State University freshman and vice president of the Boise State Muslim Student Association. Muhamad's parents were from Kurdistan, Iraq, and she was born in a refugee camp in Turkey. She arrived in the United States as an infant.
"I grew up learning to be open minded and strong and independent," she said.
Muhamad's speech was briefly interrupted by chants of "Idaho First" coming from a counter-demonstration on the other side of Jefferson Street.
"I know you guys say 'Idaho First,' but I believe 'People First,'" she said.
The demonstration came days after Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter wrote a letter
to President Barack Obama, asking him to place greater authority over refugee programs in the hands of states and halt the intake of refugees until a federal audit of the program could be conducted. Otter later reiterated his request during a telephone conference
with White House staff and key members of federal programs dealing with refugees.
The counter-demonstration, led by III Percent of Idaho, included about 200 people. Their message: Refugees from Syria come from an area of the world that is hostile to the United States, they pose a potential security risk to the communities where they settle and resources used to resettle them would be better used to help Idaho's homeless and veterans.
Scotty Ridenour, an Army veteran and retired firefighter, came to the counter-demonstration because he had concerns about security.
"These are not peaceful people," he said of Syrian refugees.
He also had criticized advocates of refugee resettlement, assuming they had never given aid those in need in their own communities.
"Ask those people: How many of them have fed a homeless veteran," he said. "They're cowards."
For David Pettinger, refugees take up resources that would otherwise be available to the needy in America.
"Why should my taxes go to Syrians before Idahoans," he said.
Mike and Laura Dennis came from Caldwell to attend the counter-demonstration. Mike said the Syrian refugees coming to America were young men of "fighting age," and that accepting them into the United States was tantamount to "welcoming in an army to attack us." Laura said Idaho has enough trouble with its own citizens.
"Our own people are homeless," she said.
Counter-demonstrators said their message wasn't bigoted or racist—their concerns were about security and Idaho homeless and veterans—but the demonstrators in favor of resettling refugees weren't buying that message. Mary Wurtz said she tutors a Congolese refugee in English, and turning America's back on people fleeing a crisis in Syria could be more dangerous than accepting refugees.
"I think that's a recruiting tactic" for groups like the Islamic State, she said.
Boise State students Amanda Earley and Megan Freeman said the rhetoric of counter-demonstrators played into the hands of America's enemies.
"There's a lot of misinformation going around," Earley said.
"The rhetoric of terrorism is to propel a movement like we have on the other side [of the street]," Freeman said.
Demonstrators and counter-demonstrators briefly found common ground during a ukulele rendition of "O Holy Night" performed by Shay Primrose. He performed to cheers and people on both sides of Jefferson Street singing along. Primrose said he was inspired to play the song from its second verse.
"The story of Jesus is a story of radical love," he said.
Primrose said he had a message for those who oppose refugee resettlement: Remember the past, including America's often complicated relationship with race and minorities.
"The most important thing is to remember history, when we passed out people who were different from us," he said. "For them, I'd like to say, 'Get on the right side of history.'"