Arizona Capitol|Jessica Swarner Arizona Capitol|Jessica Swarner

The Arizona Senate unanimously adopted a pro-refugee resolution after more than 50 supporters of the measure spent the day lobbying for its passage.

A state resolution of gratitude and support for the contributions of refugees who settle in Arizona unanimously passed the state Senate Monday after pro-refugee groups spent the day advocating its importance at the Capitol.

We Are All America state refugee organizer Nejra Sumic told The Copper Courier she and her colleagues are “ecstatic” that their conversations with lawmakers seem to be making a difference. The group helped rally more than 50 supporters of the proposed resolution for the Refugee Lobbying Day event.

SCR 1024 highlights refugees’ contributions to the state’s economy and culture, and declares support for their resettlement in Arizona. 

For Sena Muhammed, civic engagement director at Phoenix-based nonprofit Our Voice, Our Vote, the resolution is personal. Muhammed first arrived in Arizona in 2004 as a refugee from Ethiopia.

“I want to make sure that our people do feel welcome, and that there’s a community for us,” she said.

Muhammed added that although many people in the state were welcoming, she and her family have been accused of being terrorists. She was also once called a racial slur while at work.

Muhammed said passing a resolution like SCR 1024 is important during a time when President Donald Trump has instated travel bans on people from certain countries, many of them common places for refugees to relocate from. Trump has restricted travel access to 13 countries since 2017.

The Arizona House unanimously adopted a resolution that was similarly welcoming to refugees last year, but it didn’t get through the Senate. However, the Senate changed course this year, adopting SCR 1024 unanimously on Monday. It will now be sent to the House for a vote.

Several advocates meeting with legislators prior to the vote were optimistic about its outcome, reporting that they had – or expected to have – positive experiences with their representatives.  

Photo by Jessica Swarner

Connie Phillips, CEO of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, said she had an encouraging meeting with Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale. Lawrence received criticism in January for telling a conservative forum that he did not support more refugees settling in Arizona.

“I will do all I can, as a legislator, to not accept a refugee population in the state of Arizona,” Lawrence said. “Call me a bigot, whatever you want, I just think it’s best for the state of Arizona.”

But Phillips said Lawrence appeared supportive of the pro-refugee resolution – and he did in fact vote to approve it after his meeting with Phillips.

“[Lawrence] was very interested and engaged …and he seemed very open to what we had to say. [He] wanted to make sure that we knew that his remarks previously – he felt like – had been taken out of context,” Phillips said. 

Phillips’ organization gives refugees resources to acclimate to a new culture. She emphasized that the refugees they work with come through the Refugee Settlement Program and are a separate group from those seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

“I think what’s happening in Arizona is that people are confusing the two,” she said. 

Phillips added, “[Asylum seekers] have not gone through a vetting process like the ones who come through the Refugee Resettlement Program … Refugee resettlement is completely through another department and is very capable of ensuring the safety of those who arrive.”

More than 80,000 people have come to Arizona through the Refugee Resettlement Program since 1978, with nearly 3,000 arriving in 2017. By comparison, only 187 of the approximately 60,000 asylum-seekers who came to the U.S.-Mexico border last year were granted entry.

Muktar Sheikh, who works for the Somali Association of Arizona and Refugee and Immigrants Community for Empowerment, joined Phillips at the Capitol Monday for Refugee Lobbying Day. Sheikh met with Rep. Andres Cano, D-Tucson, to share what refugees in the state need the most. 

On the list of changes he hoped to see, Sheikh spoke about improvements to transportation, education, and the healthcare system to more effectively overcome language barriers. He also said he’d like to see Arizona match federal money given to refugees — $900 per person for 90 days — as other states do.

Photo by Jessica Swarner

Multiple advocates and refugees, including Sheikh, expressed gratitude for the letter Gov. Doug Ducey wrote to the State Department in December affirming Arizona’s consent to continue refugee resettlement in the state.

Like Muhammed, Sheikh’s involvement with the refugee community is personal. His family fled Somalia in 1996 amid a violent civil war. He said he has great memories of his time as a teenager in the U.S. 

“And that’s why I’m very active,” he said. “So that every family who comes here has the same experience.”