IRC event highlights refugee efforts in Utah, Nevada, Colorado, New York

Herriman resident Michael Atkinson shows his basement apartment on May 13. The apartment will soon house a Ukrainian refugee family.

Herriman resident Michael Atkinson shows his basement apartment on May 13. The apartment will soon house a Ukrainian refugee family. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah leaders are always touting the state's reputation as a community that welcomes immigrants and refugees.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox penned a letter to President Joe Biden in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan telling the administration Utah's doors were open — and as the war in Ukraine continues to displace millions, he told reporters Utah should expect "as many (refugees) as we can get."

But how does Utah's approach to resettlement actually size up to other states?

On Friday, state lawmakers from around the country met in a webinar hosted by the International Rescue Committee, including Utah state Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, to discuss recent legislation they said will help refugees and immigrants adjust to their communities.

Johnson, who worked in public schools for 50 years, won his bid for his seat in the Utah Legislature in 2019 and has since introduced a number of education-related bills.

In 2021 he championed a resolution to recognize multilingual and immigrant families' contributions to Utah public schools that he said "set the stage" for several other bills with more teeth.

"It's really important to try to help kids be able to enter school as they come to the United States, to be welcomed and to get the roadblocks out of the way," he said.

Refugee and Immigrant Student Policies Amendments

During the Utah Legislature's 2022 general session, Johnson sponsored HB230 that creates an electronic repository for school records so when refugee children move out of their resettlement city, they're "treated the very same way any other kid is in public schools," Johnson said.

  • The bill made it easier for students to enroll in public school if they don't have a birth certificate or other important documents that many families fleeing war-torn countries are unable to provide.
  • It also amends requirements surrounding "conditional enrollment" when a public school has not received a student's immunization record, which like a birth certificate, are sometimes difficult for refugee families to obtain in their home country.

Educational Language Services Amendments

Also passed in 2022 is HB302 , which Johnson says will streamline steps most Americans take for granted, like submitting documents, which can be a monumental task for a non-English speaker.

  • The bill creates an organization at the state level that ensures schools can process documents and work with students and their parents in any language.
  • It also directs the State Department of Education to create policies for every public and charter school in Utah to make the systems easier to navigate for families that struggle with English.

How Utah compares to other states

Lawmakers from Colorado, New York, Arizona, Virginia, Washington and Nevada also took part in Friday's event to talk about legislation in the works, or already passed, designed to help with the resettlement process.

  • Virginia: State Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, a Democrat, worked to pass a bill that puts more funding into English language programs, trying to hit a ratio of 20 teachers per 1,000 students.
  • Colorado: Naquetta Ricks, the first African immigrant elected to the Colorado House, sponsored a bill that helps transition foreign-trained doctors into the state's health care system. "There is a shortage here in Colorado as well as a shortage across the United States for doctors," said Ricks, a Democrat. "This bill helps to begin the process of integration."
  • New York: Sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Andrew Gounardes, a bill introduced last year ensures New York officials cannot discriminate on the basis of country of origin, religion, sexual orientation and more when admitting refugees. The second piece of the bill funded a study to map out specific community needs across the state, like health care or education. That data is then used during the resettlement process — if a refugee has a background as a teacher, they can be recommended to move to a community that needs teachers.
  • Arizona: State Rep. Steve Kaiser, who served in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army in 2008, worked to get the interpreters he knew relocated to Arizona when Kabul collapsed. But in the wake of the national resettlement effort, Kaiser said many members of his own Republican caucus were "trying to instill fear and trying to spark protests" about accepting refugees — so he passed a resolution that "set the tone" and welcomed refugees from Afghanistan into Arizona.
  • Washington: Democratic Rep. My-Linh Thai, the first refugee to be elected to Washington's House, allocated $30 million in the state's budget to help with refugee assimilation. "Policy is an empty promise sitting somewhere on the shelf without a budget," she said. Now, with a partnership with the International Rescue Committee, Thai says the state has the funds and means to help refugees "thrive and be part of our community."

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Kyle Dunphey
Kyle Dunphey is a reporter on the Utah InDepth team, covering a mix of topics including politics, the environment and breaking news. A Vermont native, he studied communications at the University of Utah and graduated in 2020. Whether on his skis or his bike, you can find Kyle year-round exploring Utah’s mountains.


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