Marie Christopherson of Buhl, Idaho, stopped to sign Rick Martin's petition to ban refugee centers in Twin Falls County.
Marie Christopherson of Buhl, Idaho, stopped to sign Rick Martin's petition to ban refugee centers in Twin Falls County.

TWIN FALLS, IDAHO - The national debate about whether to welcome refugees from the war-torn Middle East has become a personal call to action for a conservative activist in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Rick Martin has collected more than one-third of the signatures he needs to force a public vote on whether to allow refugees to resettle in his community.

Martin can regularly be found beside the busiest road through Twin Falls, next to a big sign that reads, "End Refugee Resettlement, Sign Petition Here."

Martin explains his proposed local ballot measure would make refugee centers illegal in Twin Falls County. There is only one in operation now, overseen by the College of Southern Idaho.

Jeff and Joyce Devey of Twin Falls said they signed the petition.

"We've got enough problems in this country without bringing in more problems," Jeff Devey said. "We can't even take care of our own people."

College of Southern Idaho Refugee Program in Twin
College of Southern Idaho Refugee Program in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Joyce Devey added, "I believe the county will vote to close the refugee center. I hope and pray that's what happens."

Rebels and refugees

Martin has been involved in Republican politics for years. He said he was moved into action by the prospect Syrians might be resettled in the area.

"There's a very serious concern that rebels and ISIS fighters could utilize this refugee program to get into the country and cause havoc, just like we’ve seen in Paris and San Bernardino,” Martin said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

He said those attacks have given his campaign momentum.

Martin's initiative also paints refugee resettlement as an unaffordable burden on taxpayers, and part of a leftist plan to alter the demographics of America.

"I believe that's really what they want to do," he insists. "They're trying to change America more into a Middle Eastern-style nation."

Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said he thinks Martin's refugee ballot measure is flawed.

?"The U.S. Constitution declares that immigration issues, under which this falls, are exclusively within the purview of the federal government," Loebs said during an interview with public radio. "Only the federal government has the right under the U.S. Constitution to legislate in this area."

Twin Falls, Idaho

Loebs acknowledged he does not have the authority to prevent an initiative from appearing on the ballot even if he thinks the measure is "unconstitutional, illegal, unenforceable and will be without any effect whatsoever."

Martin said he was seeking to avoid a federal conflict by declaring refugee centers to be a "public nuisance." He said a county's "police powers" allow it to ban such nuisances.

Loebs said it is legitimate to question admitting refugees from terror hotbeds, but he contends the legal way for local and state governments is through a resolution or similar statement directed to the federal level.

Action elsewhere

The unusual strategy of seeking a popular vote on refugee resettlement has drawn outside attention.

The editor of a blog called Refugee Resettlement Watch hailed Martin's group as a “pocket of resistance.” But the Southern Poverty Law Center profiled the Twin Falls campaign under the heading "Hatewatch."

A recently formed group in Ada County, Idaho's most populous, is pressing its county commission to put an advisory vote on the May 2016 ballot, asking voters if they want refugee resettlement in the area to continue or end.

Earlier this month, commissioners in Idaho's Bonner County adopted a non-binding resolution urging Governor Butch Otter to ask President Barack Obama to halt the resettlement of new refugees from Syria until their vetting is "fully reviewed and all of the states' concerns are addressed."

In the neighboring state of Washington, the Seattle City Council also considered the issue of Muslims and refugees. But it passed a resolution rejecting "anti-Muslim rhetoric."

FILE - People participate in a pro-refugee protest
FILE - People participate in a pro-refugee protest organized by Americans for Refugees and Immigrants in Seattle, Washington, Nov. 28, 2015.

Seattle's resolution stated immigrants and refugees "add enormous value to the economic and cultural life of our nation."

Some push back

Martin's petition drive is drawing local push back.

Democratic state senate candidate Deborah Silver said, "I couldn't even believe that these people are starting to talk about how horrible it is, and how they're afraid and it's a danger." She founded a group to be "a counterpoint."

"Our community is standing up and saying, 'No, this has gone well.' We like having the refugee center. We like being a part of this. This helps us in our Christian faith."

Silver was among the more than 300 people who attended a Christmas party to make refugees from Africa, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Burma feel welcome.

Refugee Center Director Zeze Rwasama said no Syrian refugees have been sent to Twin Falls for resettlement.

The U.S. State Department said 35 refugees from Syria have arrived in Idaho in fiscal year 2015, which ended September 30.

While a small number, that is more than any bordering state has taken in. For example, Washington, a more populous state that borders Idaho, received 25 refugees from Syria.

Akembe Bilombele, center, fled war-torn Congo with
Akembe Bilombele, center, fled war-torn Congo with his family and was resettled in Twin Falls, Idaho, four months ago. "People in Idaho are very kind," he said at a church Christmas party. "I am very happy here."

Rwasama said the controversy about Muslims and resettlement has prompted a surge of donations and volunteers, unlike any the center has seen in more than 30 years in Twin Falls.

Refugee screening

He has confidence in the combined screening of refugees by the FBI, the State Department and Homeland Security.

“I only resettle refugees that are vetted through the process," he explained. "Which country, I don’t have a choice. They are all human beings like me and you. They all deserve opportunities that we are enjoying in the U.S.

"In fact, the U.S. was founded by people that were trying to escape persecution. There is no difference today," Rwasama added.

The CSI Refugee Center takes in about 250-275 new refugees a year from all over the world.

The proposed ballot measure would not stop private parties such as families or churches from sponsoring refugee resettlement in the county.