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Ravalli Co. commissioners oppose relocating Syrians to Missoula

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HAMILTON, Mont. - There's a growing debate in the Bitterroot over the possible relocation of Syrian refugees to Missoula.

The Ravalli County commission drafted a letter opposing efforts brought by Missoula County. The letter has launched a petition drive in the Bitterroot opposing that letter.

In January Missoula County commissioners signed off on a letter of support for bringing a refugee resettlement office to the area. The letter shows support for a group of volunteers in Missoula called Soft Landing, which is working to bring the International Rescue Committee to Missoula.

The IRC helps provide health care, learning and economic support for people in more than 40 countries. They resettle thousands of refugees every year in 26 U.S. cities, 100 of which would be placed in Missoula.

Ravalli County commissioners drafted a letter in opposition to resettling refugees in Missoula.

The board drafted the letter to the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration of the U.S. State Department.

The letter said migration of refugees from Missoula to surrounding counties is "inevitable."

Commissioner Jeff Burrows said decisions made in Missoula to allow relocation could impact Ravalli County and surrounding counties.

"With the unsure vetting process that we have right now and admitted by both DHS and the FBI," said Burrows, "we're in opposition to the introduction of refugees."

Hamilton resident Lee Tickell has organized an online petition protesting the board's letter. Tickell said refugees would be reviewed by "the best investigative bodies in the world."

The commission "does not represent my beliefs," said Tickell, "and I don't think the values of a number of Ravalli County residents who help their neighbors whether it be next door or across the ocean."

Tickell said we are "an inclusive country. Almost all of us came here almost as a refugee."

But the commission said its job is to protect the "health, welfare an safety of its citizens."

Terrorist acts on American soil have made much of the country jittery.

Burrows said he wants better assurance from the federal government.

"I think if the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI could announce to the public that we have a sure vetting process and we know there are no links to terrorist organizations," said Burrows, "I think we could stand behind it."

Tickell said if there were guarantees nobody would be allowed into the country.

"The commissioners are wasting taxpayers' money," said Tickell. "I'd rather have them focus on roads than refugees."

A public hearing on the letter is scheduled in county commission chambers Thursday afternoon. It's likely that both sides of this controversial issue will turn out.

If it is approved, there are questions as to how much it would carry. The Montana Association of Counties has issued an opinion that said individual counties do not have the authority to exclude refugees.

NBC Montana checked with the Department of State Refugee Processing Center. From Oct. 1 through Jan. 31, more than 18,000 refugees arrived in the United States. None were accepted in Montana and Wyoming. Idaho took 318, North Dakota took 153 and South Dakota took 119.

During that time period, three people came to the United States from Syria.

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