Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy shows us how far virulent Islamophobia can carry the GOP in 2016 in states like South Carolina.
SPARTANBURG, A MANUFACTURING CENTER in a deep-red patch of the state that helped send Rep. Trey Gowdy (of Benghazi committee fame) to the House, has emerged as one of the loudest centers of opposition to the resettlement of refugees by the Obama administration. Ann Corcoran, a Maryland-based writer and activist whose book, Refugee Resettlement and the Hijra to America, posits that jihadis posing as migrants are deliberately attempting to infiltrate the country, has called the city's fight "Waterloo." As she put it, "I think we will look back at this point in time with Spartanburg as the point where the history of refugee resettlement in America is changed forever."
Residents first began protesting the arrival of refugees in the area last spring, shortly after Corcoran raised the issue at a national conference for Republican presidential candidates in South Carolina. From there, the complaints reached the desk of Gowdy, who griped to the State Department that he had been left in the dark over resettlement plans. Under pressure from legislators last spring, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley—who was once called a "raghead" by a state senator because her parents are Sikh—signed into law a proviso prohibiting the state from spending money on refugee resettlement in a county unless that county had authorized it to do so. (Hence the York County resolution and others like it.) The issue has not gone away; in August, the State Department felt compelled to dispatch Ann Richards, one of the agency's top officials for refugee resettlement, to meet with activists in Spartanburg—including Wiles. Undeterred, Secure Spartanburg County hosted a Refugee Resettlement Summit for several hundred concerned residents in September and flew in a retired Immigration and Naturalization Service agent to talk about the holes in the refugee vetting system. A flier for the event quoted a Holocaust resister.
Rep. Donna Hicks, the Spartanburg lawmaker who previously backed the anti-Shariah bill, has found herself in the middle of the clash over whether to embrace or reject people in need—torn between friends (and many constituents) who support the refugees, and the vocal concerns of constituents who oppose resettlement. Her church provides financial support to World Relief, the nonprofit managing refugee resettlement in Spartanburg. World Relief's Spartanburg director, Jason Lee, is a fellow parishioner. All told, World Relief Spartanburg has settled 69 refugees since it launched last spring—none of whom are from Syria. More than 80 percent of the newcomers are Christians, from places such as Ukraine and the Democratic Republic of Congo. (In order to keep out refugees who might come bearing the flag of ISIS, activists believe it's essential to keep out all refugees.)
"We lose who we are as human beings and as an open nation that welcomes all people if we start seeing a devil behind every face," Hicks told me.
Yet she also believes radical Islam poses a unique threat, and that the methods employed by ISIS challenge the efficacy of the refugee screening process. More to the point, so do the people who voted for her.
"I'm on Facebook a lot; every day I'm on there and so I'm watching what comes through," Hicks said. "And there's continually on my feed posts about refugees, Muslims, what ISIS is doing, Cruz said this, Rubio said this, Trump said [this]. People on Facebook, they're just blowing up with that issue." Three different constituents have given Hicks copies of Corcoran's book.
In this climate, she has found that the kinds of issues that typically fire up her constituents have been cast aside. "As a matter of fact," she said, "I had a press conference the other day—I prefiled a bill to defund Planned Parenthood in South Carolina." No one showed. "[I] just couldn't hardly even stir up media to be interested in that. But they were calling me at the same time, 'Would you like to make a comment on the refugee issue?'"
The fear card is very strong. Living in a state whose economy as largely been destroyed by global corporate greed makes it easy to blame The Other, in this case, Muslims (and to an almost equal extent, Latinos.) No wonder Southern red states are lining up behind Trump and Cruz.
It's downright scary. Lawmakers claiming they don't have a bigoted bone in their bodies, but hey, all these constituents do, so they have to go along, right?
Profiles in courage!