Mayor and Chamber insist Wausau will welcome and help new arrivals

Damakant Jayshi

Some elected and business leaders in Wausau believe the community is eager to welcome new refugees, including Afghans, as part of a new resettlement program in this northern Wisconsin city of about 40,000 people.

But questions, suspicions and fears, both overt and subtle, loom.

Some speakers weighing in on the issue Wednesday pointed to a “fear of the other” during the public comments phase of a meeting of the city’s Liberation and Freedom Committee, an advisory body chaired by Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian. A handful of residents attended the meeting.

Christine Salm, a resident, publicly accused a local radio station of inciting opposition to the resettlement program by asking listeners to show up at the LFC meeting and create a disturbance. She added that the struggle to pass the much-debated ‘Community for All’ resolution by the Marathon County Board of Supervisors shed light on the “fear of the other” that exists in the Wausau area. The resolution, aimed at sending a message of welcome and embracing diversity, failed in August after the board deadlocked 18-18 on their vote.

“Knowledge helps to extinguish fear,” Salm said. “It is up to all of us to make Wausau a safe place for our new neighbors and for those from marginalized communities who already live here.”

County Supervisor Ka Lo, representing Dist. 5, also accused the same station of incitement by using “dangerous language.” Amie Leonoff, a licensed mental health practitioner, took a dig at those who had opposed the CFA resolution. She said the people who denied the existence of racism were not present at Wednesday’s meeting to express their welcome.

Lo also explained the difference between a refugee and an immigrant. A refugee, she said, is someone who was forced to leave their country because of a war or because they are being persecuted for their beliefs.

“They don’t have an option,” Lo said of refugees. “They either stay in their country and possibly perish.. or there’s no other option but to come here, to a country that would welcome them.”

On Wednesday Emily Gilkinson, from the Ethiopian Community Development Council, offered a presentation on the refugee resettlement process now underway. The State Department approved ECDC’s refugee resettlement plan in Wausau, where 10 people, all likely Afghan evacuees, could arrive by the end of the year, according to the agency. Another 75 refugees could be resettled from January through September 2022. There are 26.4 million refugees in the world, according to the UNHCR, half of them children.

The ECDC presentation also addressed background checks evacuees must go through.

Appropriate vetting was one of the concerns expressed earlier this month during a panel discussion on the proposed resettlement In Wausau. During an Oct. 7 discussion organized by the New Beginnings for Refugees, a coalition of volunteers formed to help with the program, some panelists addressed questions about the vetting process.

Bojana Zoric-Martinez, director of the state’s Bureau of Refugee Programs, Department of Children and Families, emphatically denied that refugees are not subject to adequate vetting. A PolitiFact report shows that the FBI, Defense Department and other agencies assist with the vetting process, which includes biometrics such as fingerprinting and interviews. That information is then checked against U.S. government databases.

Afghans who are cleared to fly to the U.S. are brought to U.S. military bases, where more U.S. immigration personnel have been stationed, according to PolitiFact. Much of the vetting process is not made public, and officials acknowledge that no system is 100 percent foolproof.

Marathon County could see some resistance to the efforts to resettle refugees, especially from among those who were vehemently opposed to the CFA resolution, with some conservative media figures and politicians trying to stoke fear of the refugees.

During the county’s Executive Committee meeting on Aug. 12, one speaker laid out three conditions that should be in place before the new resettlement is implemented.

David Baker, who said the addition of “Hmong immigrants” made the county more vibrant, demanded the total number of refugees to be resettled should be determined by a truly representative group of “local citizens,” and that they be vetted and approved by 75% of the local group and not by the U.S. State Department and the refugee agency – in this instance, the ECDC.

“Third, as a sign of good faith by those promoting the effort, all refugees are to be selected from a large population of persecuted Christians,” he said. “If we cannot agree on these three simple conditions, many of us will conclude, with good evidence, that the resettlement effort is less about helping refugees and more about changing Marathon County.”

None of the resolution’s critics objected to Baker’s remarks.

Wausau Pilot & Review reached out to Mayor of Wausau, Katie Rosenberg and President/CEO of the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce, David Eckmann, for their reaction to some of the questions surrounding the resettlement.

Both said they were aware of those sentiments but insisted that Wausau was much more than a few individuals with such thoughts. 

“I’m worried that people are a little nervous about welcoming people,” Rosenberg, who supported efforts to resettle refugees in the city, said in an interview. The feedback she has received from the community, she said, is overwhelmingly positive.

Responding to the charge that she supported the resettlement initiative to burnish Wausau’s image in the wake of “negative press” surrounding the CFA resolution, Rosenberg said she didn’t see it that way. The city has a history of welcoming refugees, she said, referring to the Hmong refugees and migrants from Southeast Asia who had supported America during the Vietnam War. Hmong represents the second largest population in the city and the county.

Rosenberg acknowledged the challenges ahead such as housing and jobs for incoming refugees, but pointed out that the housing crisis was not limited to Wausau alone. 

Wausau is also facing a labor shortage, similar to that experienced in communities across the country. While adding refugees to the community might address the problem, Rosenberg added that not all refugees might want to take up the available jobs.

“The business community here is begging for more people,” the mayor said. 

A hiring sign in downtown Wausau. Picture by Damakant Jayshi for Wausau Pilot & Review

“Businesses have told me that they are happy and willing to help,” Wausau Chamber’s CEO Eckmann told Wausau Pilot & Review during an interview last week.

But Eckmann also acknowledged that problems might ensue if the city doesn’t have resources to address the needs of incoming refugees.

“You bring in Afghans and people from other cultures here — you have a problem,” he said. “How do you manage that? How do you address the language barriers? What are the resources? How do you serve them well?” 

During the Oct. 7 panel discussion, there were questions about the cost of the program. Additionally, across the country, there have been attempts to paint the refugees and immigrants as economic drains – despite evidence to the contrary.

Some residents opposed to the resettlement cite concerns over the cost to taxpayers. Neither the city of Wausau nor the state will foot the bill for these efforts, as the program is funded by federal agencies.

The U.S. Immigration Policy Center recently released a report that shows refugees have no significant impact on state or local expenditures and instead bring positive economic contributions to local communities.

Local community organizations, businesses, chambers of commerce and individuals voluntarily contribute toward the cost as well. A fact sheet by UNHCR USA lays out the refugee resettlement process in the United States.

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.