To get closer to the truth about immigration and refugees, Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins suggested starting with definitions.
“No immigrant goes through the kind of vetting process that refugees go through. No other," he said. "And so when you learn these definitions, you will see that, ‘Oh my god we’ve been wrong. We just lumped everybody in one group and called them refugees.’ ”
Collins spoke Friday at the Billings Public Library during an event highlighting immigration and refugee issues. It featured six speakers who touched on immigration law, health care for migrant workers and the politics that surround these topics.
Collins, a health department child protection specialist who made waves with his election in November, told his own story of the long road that led him out of Liberia as a refugee and eventually to Helena. After experiencing a deadly civil war and while working to meet his wife and daughter in the United States, he went through more than two and a half years of vetting to reach Helena as a refugee.
That's why definitions matter, he said. It disappointed Collins that refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants have been at times painted with a single brush stroke.
“If we care about the truth, we can pull it up. If we’re confused about the truth, we can find the truth," he said. "But we don’t care. We prefer to run with the little talking points."
A refugee is someone in another country who might face serious harm due to a humanitarian crisis at home. The United States designates refugee status, and then that person begins an application to come to the United States.
Someone seeking asylum generally qualifies as a refugee but is already in the United States or shows up at a port of entry.
An immigrant is someone who typically chooses to come to the United States and can enter the country legally or illegally.
Labels matter to Claudia Stephens, who works for the Montana Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers Council. The organization provides health care to agriculture workers who might not otherwise have access or financial means to care.
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Stephens said Friday her clients are among the hundreds of immigrants in Montana on an H2-A temporary ag worker visa. But that's not the majority.
"Most of the people are U.S. citizens," she said. "And others have been living in Montana for generations."
Stephens said the politics around immigration and the link people made to the word "migrant" made them drop that word from the organization's program title. The association became so toxic that it became the Ag Worker Health and Services program.
Another speaker, Jordon Dyrdahl-Roberts, made a case for a single label.
"We keep looking at immigrants and refugees as the other," he said. "We're all human."
Dyrdahl-Roberts got national attention in February when he quit his job at the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. He resigned in protest of orders to process information for a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement subpoena, which was presumably part of an immigration crackdown.
It was Collins' story that stole the show. He talked about first arriving in Helena, unsure whether his 2-year-old daughter would cry at seeing him for the first time. She didn't.
Collins said he went to work and built on what he had. He called himself fortunate, but his success didn't come for free.
“That part of my story is not unique," he said. "When refugees come, and that second chance is given to them, they’re ready to work. They're ready to earn their keep.”