“I was so scared,” the 28-year-old recounted. Then she laughed. Three years on from her arrival, “life is beautiful. Utah is a wonderful place, the best place in the world for me.”
The admiration is apparently mutual.
This fall, President Trump signed an executive order that, for the first time, gives states and cities the authority to veto refugee resettlements. The move alarms refugee advocates, who fear a wave of xenophobic demagoguery as governors and mayors seek to prove their anti-immigrant credentials by banning new arrivals.
That still may happen, adding to the strain on a once world-class resettlement program that has been crippled by cuts since Trump took office.
But in Utah — deeply conservative, deeply devout, predominantly white Utah — the response has been altogether different. The governor, a Republican who aligns with Trump on most issues, wrote the president a letter in late October.
He didn’t want to keep refugees out. He didn’t want to reduce their numbers. He wanted Trump to send more.
“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,” Gov. Gary R. Herbert wrote. Such newcomers, he added, have become “productive employees and responsible citizens.” They have been an asset to Utah, he said, not a liability.
Republicans in the state legislature quickly backed up their governor, daring to defy a president who has repeatedly shown an unwillingness to tolerate intraparty dissent. So did Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation. So did Republicans in city halls. Democrats across Utah added their support.
“I have to be honest: I don’t have any idea why it’s a partisan issue nationally. It’s never been one here,” said Brad Wilson, the state’s Republican speaker of the House. “Regardless of political party, we value these people.”
Until recently, that was true for the United States as a whole. Leading the world in providing refuge to people fleeing war or oppression was long a source of bipartisan pride. From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, every president in recent decades had sought to bolster the program, identifying it as a way to generate goodwill and prestige internationally while strengthening bonds in communities at home.
But not Trump. The president in September cut the annual number of new arrivals to a maximum of 18,000, a record low. He has repeatedly attacked refugees, suggesting they may be a “Trojan horse” intent on violence or a Muslim takeover. At an October rally in Minnesota, his supporters booed his mention of Somali refugees, then cheered when the president announced he had given states and cities the chance to block them from moving in.
“Believe me, no other president would be doing that,” Trump declared.
Yet as Utah’s response shows, there may be limits to how far even a Republican state and local officeholders are willing to go in following Trump’s nativist brand of politics. While many in Utah support the president’s attempts to crack down on undocumented immigrants, they draw a line at his stance toward people who have come to the United States legally after waiting their turn and undergoing thorough vetting.
Since September, when Trump authorized the veto, reactions from state capitols and city halls have been more hospitable toward refugees than hostile.
Some leaders, such as the Republican governor of North Dakota, have affirmed their states want to continue receiving refugees as long as municipalities agree. Others, such as the Democratic governor of the swing state of Colorado, have said they will welcome any refugees that other states reject.
Only four years ago, in the wake of terrorist attacks in Europe that came amid a historically large influx of asylum seekers, 31 governors said they were opposed to allowing in Syrians asking for refuge.
This time, no governor or major city leader has taken Trump up on the offer to enact a ban — at least not yet. (Officials have until June to decide.)
Refugee advocates say the early responses reflect a softening of attitudes locally that is not always reflected in the hard-line stances of Trump or the hyperpartisan warfare of Washington.
“At the state level, it’s turning,” said Nazanin Ash, vice president of global policy at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “There’s a definite movement toward embracing refugees.”
In Utah, the embrace is nothing new. The state’s 3 million-strong population is nearly 90 percent white, and it reliably goes Republican, with voters generally favoring the party’s policies on abortion, taxes and gun rights. Utah last sided with the Democrat in a presidential contest more than half a century ago.
But the state is considerably less enamored of Trump than its GOP-loving reputation would suggest. In 2016, he won less than half the vote. Nearly a quarter of Utahns opted for native son Evan McMullin, a self-described “independent conservative” who had once worked at the United Nations’ refugee agency and who urged the United States not to close its borders to those most in need.
Utah’s population includes about 60,000 refugees, hailing from places such as Somalia, Congo, Syria, Iraq and Vietnam. Under Trump, the number of new arrivals has dropped precipitously, from 1,245 in 2016 to 421 last year. Still, Utah punches well above its weight, taking in more people per capita than large states such as California, Texas and New York.
When hatred toward refugees is running high elsewhere in the United States, it is not unusual for employees arriving at the IRC’s Salt Lake City office to find it has been tagged overnight not with slurs but with hearts and messages of affirmation.
“We don’t even know who’s doing it,” said executive director Natalie El-Deiry.
When the governor spoke out forcefully in defense of refugees, and against Trump’s cuts, no one was surprised. Jackie Biskupski, the Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City, said there are many issues on which she and the governor disagree. But refugees are not among them.
“It’s not a partisan issue in Utah,” said Biskupski, whose city of 200,000 is at the heart of a metro area that is the landing spot for most of the refugees who come to Utah. “I’m very grateful and proud of that.”
Biskupski, who has three refugees on her staff at city hall, said there are many reasons support in Utah is nearly universal.
The state’s roaring economy generates a constant demand for new workers that refugees help to meet. There are well-funded systems that provide job training, language instruction and other support to refugees to ensure a successful integration. And the diversity that refugees bring is welcomed, adding vitality and variety to the state’s arts and cultural scene.
Biskupski said it is also impossible to ignore the influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
Nearly two-thirds of the state is Mormon. The group traces its presence in the territory that became modern Utah to a mid-19th-century flight from persecution in the eastern United States. That history helps shape its approach to refugees.
“It’s in the DNA of a lot of the residents of Utah, having pioneer forefathers who were driven from their homes because of their religious beliefs,” said Rick Foster, who manages the church’s global network of welfare operations, including support for refugees. “There’s an acute sensitivity to individuals who are suffering a similar plight.”
Of course, escapes from persecution are a common thread in the ancestry of many Americans, from the Mayflower on down. But the Mormons make that narrative central to their teachings and connect it directly to the struggles of those seeking protection today.
Church leaders emphasize that refugees of all backgrounds are welcome — a departure from racist church policies of the recent past, including a ban on blacks in the priesthood that did not end until 1978.
The high percentage of young Mormons who perform missionary work abroad plays a role, as well. Utah may be landlocked, far from any international border. But its population has a comfort and familiarity with foreign cultures.
“You walk down the street in Provo and you can ask people whether they speak a second language,” said Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah), a member of the Mormon church. “Ninety percent of them will say yes.”
When Trump slashed refugee admittance numbers, which had peaked under the Obama administration at 110,000 annually, Curtis was among a small minority of Republican members of Congress who wrote to the president to object.
Curtis said he did not receive a response from the White House. The governor’s office declined to comment on its communications with the White House in response to Herbert’s letter. But in the past, the administration has defended its refugee cuts, saying they were necessary to focus attention on asylum seekers arriving at the Mexican border.
Curtis did not support Trump in 2016, opting for a write-in candidate instead. But he has voted with the president about 95 percent of the time in Congress. In an interview, he said he “regrets” that the refugee issue has become politicized while declining to criticize Trump for his part. “I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole,” he said.
Others are more blunt.
“The administration is trying to create division where none existed,” Aden Batar said.
Batar is the 52-year-old director of the refugee program at Catholic Community Services of Utah, one of two organizations, along with the IRC, that resettles new arrivals. He is also a refugee from Somalia who has raised four children in Utah after moving there a quarter-century ago.
“I’m a Muslim, but religion doesn’t divide us,” Batar said. “Catholics, Muslims, Jews, LDS. You name it, every religious organization here is helping refugees.”
When Batar was resettled in the small city of Logan, more than an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City, “there was no one who looked like me,” he said. “But no matter where you go in Utah, the community is very welcoming, very accepting.”
The politicians back up that attitude with funds and policies designed to allow smooth resettlements.
Unlike in states where refugees get only a few months of support, new arrivals in Utah have a case manager who helps guide them for two years. When refugees take their driver’s license test, an interpreter can come along for the ride. A state-run training center links new arrivals with available jobs and helps them boost their skills — everything from cooking to coding.
“My goal is not to put people into low-wage, dead-end jobs. It’s to put them on a career path,” said Asha Parekh, director of the state-funded Utah Refugee Services Office. Since the training center opened four years ago, the average wage for refugees in the state has risen from around $8 an hour to over $12, with graduates finding work in fields such as information technology and manufacturing. A half-dozen recent arrivals are in training to join the police force.
But the state’s support can do only so much when the White House’s cuts run so deep.
Parekh said that she now has far more employers looking for workers than there are refugees to fill those jobs.
Batar has had to downsize his staff in recent years as the number of new arrivals in Utah has fallen. The governor’s request notwithstanding, next year’s total could be even lower given the reduced federal cap. That is even as the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide climbs higher, to more than 70 million.
When Batar scans the schedule of upcoming arrivals, it is mostly a blank slate.
“We have the capacity — the volunteers, the jobs, the donations, the housing. We don’t have any shortage of resources,” he said. “We just don’t have the refugees.”
For some recent arrivals hoping to reunite with relatives waiting for their turn to come to the United States, that has been devastating.
Halimo Ahmed Hassan, 50, had to leave her son behind when she fled her native Somalia and, in 2014, came to the United States. She said he had been vetted to join her by the time Trump took office. But the president’s decision to implement a travel ban on people from Somalia, as well as six other nations, scuttled those plans.
Now, with so many people in line for so few resettlement slots, Hassan has no idea when she and her son, now 16, will be together again.
“I think about him all the time,” said Hassan, wiping away tears with the hem of her pink hijab. “All the other people in America have helped me. I don’t know why the president isn’t helping.”
Kuot, the 28-year-old who feared her children would be kidnapped when she first landed in Utah, has faced no such torment. Her children are with her, they speak fluent English and they are thriving in the public schools.
It is a far cry from her own childhood: She was born in present-day South Sudan and was a refugee in Kenya by the age of 4, her early life marked by violence, poverty and persecution.
Now she drives a minivan and lives in a two-bedroom apartment. “I feel safe,” Kuot said.
She is working part time as she raises her children, hones her computer skills and advances toward her GED. She plans to enroll in medical training and, someday soon, have a job in which she can assist others.
“People in Utah helped me and they didn’t even know me.” she said. “Why wouldn’t I do the same for people I don’t know?”