Wilmot Collins, a refugee from Liberia who was elected mayor of Helena last year, will be one of the speakers at a community forum in Billings next week.
Sponsored by Billings Sanctuary Rising, the event, “Strangers to Neighbors: Welcoming Immigrants and Refugees to Our Community,” will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Community Room of the Billings Public Library on Friday, June 8.
Other scheduled speakers are Mary Poole, director of Soft Landing Missoula; Claudia Stephens, with the Montana Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers Council; Randall Caudle, an immigration lawyer; and Jordon Dyrdahl-Roberts, who quit his job with the state of Montana after being asked to collect data on undocumented people.
Billings Sanctuary Rising was started in Billings last year to encourage a public dialogue about issues related to immigration and refugees. The Rev. Mike Mulberry, pastor at First Congregational Church in Billings and one of the founders of Billings Sanctuary Rising, said the group has also been in discussions with the International Rescue Committee.
Soft Landing Missoula is a community partner of the IRC, which contracts with the State Department to resettle refugees in the Missoula area. Mulberry said the IRC would have to open an office in Billings, or with 120 miles of it, to start a similar resettlement program here.
“This event, in fact, has made them very aware of Billings as a possible location,” Mulberry said.
Asked how he thought Billings would respond to a refugee resettlement program, Mulberry said, “Billings is very diverse. I think there are pockets of people that would be very excited about something like that.” And while there are also large pockets of very conservative people who might see refugees as a threat, Mulberry said, he’s convinced that having refugees in Billings would assuage those fears.
“Those refugees might end up being leaders that bring out the best in our communities,” he said, pointing to the example of Mayor Collins.
“Sanctuary” is a politically charged word these days, with President Trump threatening to cut off federal funds to cities that offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. But Mulberry said members of Billings Sanctuary Rising, which includes many people from the faith community, “understand sanctuary as something that is a sacred space and involves welcoming the stranger.”
The Rev. Becky Taylor, pastor of Seeker’s Harbor Faith Community and also a founder of Billings Sanctuary Rising, said the group is focused on raising awareness and educating people about immigration and refugees.
“We understand that Billings is maybe not going to be a sanctuary city,” she said, “but we thought it was time we had a conversation, a reasonable dialogue about how we treat other people.”
She said it can be easy for people in Billings or elsewhere in Montana to feel far removed from the immigration debate, far from the refugee crises around the world, and to feel there is little someone here can do about those issues.
“We’re super excited about this event,” she said. “We think it’s going to be so informative and so eye-opening.”
The community forum on Friday, June 8, is free and open to all and will include a no-host lunch from local food trucks. Here’s a closer look at the schedules and speakers:
♦ 9 a.m.: Welcome.
♦ 9:05: Dyrdahl-Roberts will talk about why he resigned from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry after being asked by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to collect data on undocumented people.
♦ 9:45: Caudle, an immigration lawyer from Missoula, will talk about “Knowing your rights.”
♦ 10:50: Stephens, with the Montana Migrant Council, will talk about the importance of migrant labor to the local food supply.
♦ 11:25: Question-and-answer session with the morning presenters.
♦ 11:50: Lunch, at food trucks in the parking lot of the Gainan’s building.
♦ 1 p.m.: Collins, the Helena mayor and Liberian refugee, will talk about his experiences, which included escaping civil war in Liberia and undergoing a grueling 31-month refugee vetting process before settling in Helena, where his wife had been an exchange student in high school.
♦ 2:15: Poole, the Soft Landing Missoula director, will talk about how her organization helps refugees comfortably assimilate into their new community.
♦ 3: Panel discussion, with questions from the audience, moderated by Mulberry.