The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Twin Falls, Idaho, co-dependency of whites and immigrants faces a test

Bob Schmidt, a driver for a Twin Falls refugee center, holds Marceline Baruani’s child. (Kim Raff for The Washington Post)

Sunrise was still almost three hours away. Bob Schmidt rubbed his eyes, straightened his camouflage hat and climbed into the driver’s seat of his van. He was about to begin his daily drive through this politically deep-red region, picking up refugees and dropping them off at work.

Blocks away was the auditorium where, during the summer, an anti-Islam activist warned the crowd that “radicalism and hatred” was “rising throughout the world,” including in Twin Falls. Nearby was the family restaurant where, one night earlier, a team of self-avowed defenders of freedom had reveled in Donald Trump’s victory and talked about being on guard against sharia law.

On the horizon were the county’s farms and factories, where employers said they would be lost without the low-wage workforce from Iraq, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa — refugees whose best chance in the United States meant a seat in Schmidt’s van and a shift that started at 6 a.m.

“So, is everybody ready?” Schmidt said Tuesday morning, once his van was filled.

“Yeah,” came a groan from the back.

Twin Falls is now a testing ground for whether the bitter cultural divisions intensified by this year’s presidential campaign can recede in favor of the co-dependency that marks many communities with large white and immigrant populations. In this southern Idaho city of 45,000, the question surrounds a growing Muslim population. Across the country, people in meatpacking towns and agricultural areas are wondering whether their communities will hold on to a supply of Hispanic workers and other foreign laborers crucial to those industries.

“We need to take the time to understand one another,” said Schmidt, 61, paid $8 an hour by a staffing company. “The hate in our country has gotten worse.”

The rancor in Twin Falls began to surface only over the past year and a half as concerns about domestic terrorism awakened a fierce and sudden debate about whether the local Muslim population represented a point of pride or a potential danger — an anxiety that Trump amplified during his campaign. For decades before, the refu­gee resettlement program run by a local community college had flourished with little opposition, with refugees filling open jobs on dairy farms and in cheese factories.

Amid the debate, a crime allegedly committed by refugees thrust Twin Falls under the spotlight of hard-line right-wing websites, galvanizing anti-refugee activists and even drawing the attention of one of Trump’s sons. Racially loaded and often false accounts about Twin Falls-based Muslim refugees on the website Breitbart reinforced many of Trump’s warnings about the threats from immigrants.

“There is not going to be any reconciliation,” said Vicky Davis, 65, a local retired computer systems analyst who opposes the refu­gee program. “I will never, never give in to people that walk around in burqas.”

Opinions about the refu­gee program in the Magic Valley, as this region is called, do not neatly align with party affiliation or other typical dividing lines. The vast majority of Democrats and Republicans say the refugees deserve a chance in the United States. Trump earned 66 percent of votes in Twin Falls County, slightly less than prior Republican presidential candidates, and local donations to the refugee center have increased in the days since his victory. Still, according to residents and officials, an increasingly vocal minority has been emboldened by Trump’s rise, rallied by his message about strict immigration controls to guard against “radical Islamic terror.”

The fervor in Twin Falls isn’t easily explained by other factors. The city has an unemployment rate of 3.1 percent, compared with 4.9 percent nationally, and has recently attracted several new factories, including one run by the Clif Bar snack company. Yet the character of Twin Falls is changing. Its pro-refugee mayor has reported threats to the FBI made against him. Newly hostile city council meetings were guarded for the first time by armed police. A local Fox radio morning host says refugees, rather than helping fill the labor force, are at the grocery store “spending the food stamps that you paid for.”

“This is the $24 question,” said Chris Talkington, a city council member in favor of the refugee program. “Does our economic vitality get put up on the shooting gallery for the sake of folks who’d like to ship [refugees and immigrants] away? They are fomenting dissent, and I do not expect them to go away.”

Crime energizes movement

In the week after Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, 15 members of a group called “We the People Magic Valley,” formed this year, gathered for their monthly meeting in the wood-paneled back room of Idaho Joe’s restaurant. One member made a presentation about government overreach, and then local resident Adrian Arp, an agronomist, stood up.

“I don’t know how you feel,” Arp said to applause, “but it was a miracle that Trump won.”

In the room were young mothers, grandmothers in sweaters, professionals. A few had been laid off. One woman said she hadn’t been able to buy a new car in 16 years. Davis, the retiree, said she had once earned $125,000 in the computer industry in Manhattan and lost her job because of outsourcing and a visa program that paved the way for foreigners.

“I think God is giving us another chance,” Arp said. “I mean, seriously. You looked at all the odds. The Republican establishment. The crooked media. Despite it all, he was able to pull it off. And now we’ve got to hold his feet to the fire.”

The anti-immigration sentiment in Twin Falls began to take off in April 2015, when the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center’s director erroneously said Twin Falls was set to receive Syrians, setting off sharp opposition. Opponents of the program proposed local ballot measures calling for a ban on refu­gee centers, but they didn’t gain traction.

Then this June, something seemed to galvanize the movement: A sexual assault took place in a local apartment complex, and rumors spread that the suspects were Syrian teens. "Syrian Refugees Rape Little Girl at Knifepoint in Idaho," read a headline on the Drudge Report.

The case was sealed because it involved juveniles, including the victim, a 5-year-old girl. Still, Twin Falls police corrected a few facts, saying the suspects were from Sudan and Iraq. It hardly mattered. (The case is now in court, and all suspects have been charged, Twin Falls Prosecuting Attorney Grant Loebs said.)

A surge of Twin Falls residents appeared at council meetings, castigating city officials and accusing them of endangering the town. Right-wing commentators descended. Breitbart published at least 20 stories from Twin Falls, most of which generated thousands of comments. (Among the headlines: “How Muslim Migrants Devastate a Community.” “Twin Falls Refugee Rape Special Report: Why Are The Refugees Moving In?”) Eventually, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out an article written by Michelle Malkin, a right-wing commentator.

“Where’s the outrage for this 5 year old girl???” Trump Jr. wrote.

“It became this stirring of facts blended in with opinion,” Twin Falls Mayor Shawn Barigar said. “In this Breitbart phenomena, I’d get an email with a link. I’d see the article. I’d end up in the comments. You’d have 2,000 comments from across the country — vile, nasty comments about Muslims. I ended up down the rabbit hole to the point where I had to stop reading this stuff.”

(Breitbart’s former president, Stephen K. Bannon, recently was named as White House chief strategist under Trump.)

Nobody in Twin Falls is sure whether Trump will follow through with his campaign pledge to curb or end Muslim entry into the United States.

But at Idaho Joe’s, the group brainstormed smaller ways to change minds. They could closely monitor and raise awareness about what they called “unpatriotic activity.” They could update the group’s website to highlight the ways in which sharia law opposed the Constitution. They could recruit more millennials. They could collaborate with a Breitbart reporter that some in the group know. They could hold a potluck — one that served food Muslims wouldn’t eat — to build camaraderie.

Stefany Clark, sitting in the corner, said her neighborhood was “20 to 22 percent Muslim” and suggested she could host.

“A pig roast,” she said.

Defending the refugees

About 300 refugees arrive in Twin Falls each year, and although they are free to resettle elsewhere in the county, many choose to stay. In nearly all cases, Refu­gee Center Director Zeze Rwasama said, refugees find jobs within two or three months. Some end up working at Chobani, a yogurt company founded by a Turkish immigrant. Others take jobs at Everton Mattress Factory or Jerome Cheese.

“I’m tired all the time,” said Mohammed Osman, 21, a Sudanese worker who pulls a 12-hour overnight shift at the cheese plant. He said he is fearful of Trump and his influence. “We were hoping for a different direction.”

As criticism about the refu­gees bubbled up, an Idaho Dairymen’s Association representative defended the program in front of the city council. At one dairy farm, 60 of 250 workers are refugees.

“The one thing we hear repeatedly from different employers, they’re continually short on employees,” said Rick Naerebout, the group’s director of operations. “Everybody is always looking to fill holes. We’re in a situation where we’ve got this workforce coming to us.”

Schmidt, the driver, found himself in the middle of the debate almost by accident. He had been laid off during the depths of the financial crisis by Glanbia, a cheesemaker with a plant in Gooding, Idaho. He went to the area’s unemployment office and got linked up with a staffing company. Soon, he was driving a van marked with the CSI refugee program’s logo, rows of foreign faces in the back. On the streets of Twin Falls, a few glared at Schmidt at red lights, he said. One person doused his windshield with a milkshake.

“It’s that old Civil War attitude,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt had served in the 82nd Airborne Division, stationed in Fort Bragg, N.C., 772 jumps under his belt, with the hip and lower back pain to prove it. He had $160,000 in medical debt and no insurance. He’d all but abandoned his retirement plans to buy an RV and tour the country because he had $1 in his bank account and no clear way to save more. But he liked his job, and he said he identified a bit with the people he drove. They worked hard. They scraped by.

“How many people do you know that would get up every day, on time, for a job where a cow might take a s--t on them?” Schmidt said as he drove to the dairy. “And then do it again day after day. Never a complaint.”

Schmidt had avoided some of the online conversations about the refugees — he is dyslexic and does almost no reading.

But Schmidt said one thing bugged him and gave him a window into what was happening all around him in Twin Falls: His brother opposed the refugee program. Schmidt had tried to convince him that it wasn’t a danger. He said that all Americans had come here from somewhere else and that if Trump tightened the United States’ borders for refugees, his own job might be on the line.

It didn’t matter.

“No, I didn’t convince him,” Schmidt said. “I guess I don’t understand a lot of Americans. In many ways it reminds me of a plow horse. Just running with blinders on.”