Since moving to Utah in 2017, I’ve been overwhelmingly impressed by the hospitality of this place. And that’s saying a lot, coming from the Deep South as I do. Utah has been welcoming to me and to my family, and I’ve been amazed at the rich diversity of its people.
I was especially heartened by Gov. Gary Herbert’s recent request that the Trump Administration reverse its policy limiting the number of refugees allowed into the United States.
In his letter to the president, Herbert said, “Utah’s unique history informs our approach to refugees… 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.”
This letter was widely praised across Utah by groups on many political and religious fronts.
I think, then, that many of those same people would be surprised to learn that many refugees in our state will not be given the new home and new life that they imagined when they fled their home countries, but instead will be forced into a new detention facility in southwestern Wyoming. These refugees, of course, have fled decades of state-sponsored and U.S.-backed violence in the Central American triangle.
Despite the fact that these may not be the refugees that Herbert was writing about, surely they are undeserving of the punishment of being rounded up and shipped out of state, away from their families, to live in fear and uncertainty in what amounts to a concentration camp. After all, to enter the United States illegally is a misdemeanor offense – the same as a traffic ticket – and, if done with a claim of asylum, is not illegal at all.
The Department of Homeland Security is aware that Utah is a hospitable state, and so it hopes that Utahns won’t notice that a detention facility is being built just across the state line in Evanston, Wyo., with a capacity of around 1,000 beds. A request for proposals for such a facility has been prepared by the Salt Lake County ICE office, and is being considered by private prison contractors such as CoreCivic.
Most of those who would occupy those beds currently live and work not in Wyoming but here, in the Salt Lake Valley. They are our neighbors.
For those of us who had parents and grandparents who fought in World War II, it’s unthinkable that our country could be building concentration camps to round up human beings and house them in detention indefinitely. We are keenly aware of the immorality of such a situation. And Utahns have not yet forgotten the internment camps that held Japanese people during that time, right here in our state.
As if that weren’t bad enough, to think that there are private companies who will profit from these abuses, and that the prospect of just 150 jobs is being used to tempt Wyoming residents into allowing this in their community, ought to make all of us feel ashamed. Surely there are humane and compassionate ways to bring prosperity to the Mountain West. Surely we don’t need to profit from the misery of our fellow human beings.
As a minister, my charge is to protect life, and to call people into action to represent God’s love for all humanity. Therefore, I urge our federal representatives from Utah and Wyoming, to put a stop to this unconscionable detention facility. I further urge all people of faith and conscience living in Utah and Wyoming not to look away from what is happening in our community, and to speak up for the dignity of all refugees.
The Rev. Monica Dobbins is assistant minister of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City.