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Refugees in Small-Town Idaho

On June 20, 2016, the Drudge Report boasted the headline: “Syrian Refugees Rape Little Girl at Knifepoint in Idaho.”

Behind the sensationalist headline, however, was a classic case of exaggeration and misinformation. The sexual assault did not involve a knife, and the town at hand, Twin Falls, Idaho, does not admit refugees from Syria. Because the case involved minors, the only publicly verified information was that a sexual assault occurred in June 2016, and that the perpetrators were from Iraq and Sudan. Still, police clarifications on the case did not prevent Twin Falls residents like Terrence Edwards from declaring, “ISIS is here, the Muslim Brotherhood is here. There has been violations already occurred by Muslims here and it needs to be addressed.”

Twin Falls Resident Rick Martin advocates against refugee resettlement, leading the Committee to End the College of Southern Idaho’s Refugee Center.

Backlash like Edwards’s was swift: Twin Falls residents linked the assault to the local refugee resettlement program, arguing that refugees from “Muslim countries” would continue to commit acts of “terrorism” against Twin Falls. One woman named Vicky Davis furiously declared to the Twin Falls city council, “The Nation of Islam has declared global jihad on us.”

Davis continued, “And this little girl who was attacked, she’s just one episode. There have been other episodes, and you know it, and I know it, and we all know it. And it’s not just in this town, it’s in other towns. The things that are happening, and they are continuing to happen, and they’re on your head”—Davis began to point vigorously at each member of the city council—“and your head and your head and yours.”

At a Twin Falls city council meeting on June 20, 2016, Vicky Davis points at Twin Falls city council members.

At a time when refugees’ rights to belong in the United States remains contentious, when Islamophobic discourse permeates national airwaves, when gender violence has inflamed people everywhere from college campuses to Hollywood red carpets, when rural America has cited a feeling of being left behind, and when the ever-nebulous phenomenon of “fake news” increasingly gains prominence, this case of Twin Falls seems intertwined with questions that the United States and society writ large continue to grapple with.

The Small Town of Twin Falls

Twin Falls, Idaho, with a population of roughly 47,000, shares many traits with other rural towns in the United States. It is predominantly white, Christian, and conservative, voting reliably Republican in every recent Presidential election.

Yet in many ways, Twin Falls also stands out from conventional perceptions of struggling rural communities. Twin Falls’s economy has flourished, fueled by corporate powerhouses such as Chobani and Clif Bar that base plants in Twin Falls’s agricultural abundance. Its unemployment rate of 3.2% falls well below the national average.

This economic growth has, to an extent, bolstered Twin Falls’s long-established tradition of refugee resettlement, which originated with the 1980s influx of Southeast Asian refugees and 1990s wave of Bosnian refugees. Twin Falls resettles approximately 300 refugees per year, including several hundred from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, and Bhutan. The prominence of agricultural industries provides a plethora of jobs that do not require high English proficiency, jobs well suited to refugees; refugees make up one-third of employees at the Twin Falls Chobani plant.

Oftentimes, opposition to immigration often from fears of economic displacement; despite the economic prosperity and low unemployment rates in Twin Falls, refugees continue to face discrimination. The presence of refugees—recently, of markedly different races, religions, and cultures—has spurred tensions with Twin Falls’s longer-standing culturally and racially homogenous residents. Since April 2015, when a local newspaper prematurely announced the arrival of Syrian refugees, anti-refugee activism—through marches, legislative proposals to end the refugee program, and even robocalls made by white nationalists—has flared throughout Twin Falls. At the same time, news of the deadly shootings in Orlando dominated national headlines. This proliferation of tensions formed the backdrop for the June 2016 case in Twin Falls.

A Modern Panic

According to Junaid Rana, an anthropologist and professor of Asian-American studies, contemporary stereotypes of certain minority groups are reinforced through the racialized concept of panics. Rana describes racial panics as the societal reactions to isolated instances of violence by members of specific races or ethnicities. The events of September 11, 2001, are an obvious example of these panics; Muslims, linked by popular imagination with terrorism, continue to experience discrimination and hate crimes as a result today.

In Twin Falls, xenophobic discourse constructed refugees, or immigrants more generally, as a source of panic: “And if we are bringing in people from other countries, if they don’t abide by our rules they need to get the hell back to their country,” a woman named Denny asserted furiously. Another resident, Cari Coleburn, stated, “I was deployed to Iraq, and this is something that would happen there.” Vicky Davis lambasted, “They are not compatible with our culture. They hate us. They don’t want to be Americans. They don’t want to assimilate.”

Intriguingly, the xenophobic sentiments were often framed through Islamophobia, reifying harmful stereotypes of Muslims as well. What set the Twin Falls case apart from other “panics,” however, was that no one actually knew whether the perpetrators were Muslim or not. According to the political scientist Farid Hafez, this conflation of Muslims and refugees arises from the current influx of refugees from Middle Eastern countries, where western political discourses have framed refugees as Muslim threats to “racially pure nation states” or “terrorist” infiltrators of the west.

A woman named Heather Strube warned against the “Islamic influence that has been creeping into Twin Falls”—despite the fact that police never stated the religion of the perpetrators. Another, Nolan Stroup, asserted, “I’m not a racist or a white supremacist—but [the police] should be profiling. It works. If the last two mass shootings have been committed by Muslims, why aren’t we profiling Muslims? It makes sense, doesn’t it?” Indeed, in much of the backlash to the assault, Twin Falls residents commented on the so-called dangers of Islam; the perpetrators, by virtue of their refugee status, were thus linked to a Muslim identity as well.

In an age of “fake news,” spreading misinformation that confirms certain narratives, no matter how inaccurate, becomes that much easier. With social media’s viral capacity for inaccuracy, the Twin Falls case thus represents a modern “panic” that not only reinforces previously held biases, but also forms stronger and more interlocking biases across mappings of race, migration, and culture.

Gender Violence & Hypocrisy

In 2009, four young Liberian refugees in Phoenix, Arizona, were charged with gang-raping an eight-year-old girl. Nancy Worthington, a professor of media studies at Quinnipiac University, analyzed news coverage of this case, finding a pattern reminiscent of the Twin Falls case: Almost all news coverage centered on the nationality and ethnicity of the perpetrators, framing the assault as a product of cultural difference.

In her study, Worthington found that media representations of gang rapes involving non-white perpetrators consistently shift to the perpetrators’ identities. “The consistent finding across these studies is that news constructions of gender violence emphasize racial or ethnic identity in cases where those involved deviate from the presumed (and therefore invisible) white/Anglo norm, such that broad racial and ethnic groups are deemed suspect,” Worthington concluded.

Although the circumstances of the Twin Falls case do not exactly parallel Worthington’s case studies, the pattern of shifting the focus to the perpetrator’s identity remains. In the first City Council meeting in the aftermath of the assault, every comment referred to the perpetrators’ perceived Muslim and refugee identities. “Are you aware that there’s a lot of pornography on foreigner web pages in Twin Falls that’s child pornography?” one woman named Julie Ruf stated.

She continued, “This is not the time to support the refugees, or put more taxes towards the program.” Ruf’s demand, inescapably, attaches sexual assault to the identity of the perpetrators; in Ruf’s words, sexual assault as an act of gender violence cannot be denounced in isolation, but only in conjunction with broader attempts to dismantle the refugee resettlement program.

The trope of demonizing black men as sexually rapacious is a well-studied phenomenon. What Worthington found—and what the Twin Falls case confirms—is that male Muslims and refugees from countries considered part of the “global South” similarly become framed as sexual predators.

When comparing this sexual assault in Twin Falls to other sexual assaults in the region, a racialized double standard becomes clear. This case is the only one that inspires such fierce backlash towards the perpetrators, demonstrating the overemphasis on racial—and in this case—Muslim refugee identity.

In the same year in Dietrich, Idaho, a town 35 miles from Twin Falls, a white high schooler sexually assaulted a mentally disabled, black classmate. While the Dietrich case did attract attention and indignation, community members certainly did not flood city council meetings with their concerns, nor equate the perpetrator with extremist groups. In fact, many defended the perpetrator, claiming the perpetrator “had no criminal intent to do anything or any harm to anyone” and “[b]oys are boys and sometimes they get carried away.” Although the conditions of the Dietrich case differ from the Twin Falls case, a certain uncomfortable truth remains: the identities of the perpetrators in only the Twin Falls case became a central focus, attracting the most extensive community-wide reaction.

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Indeed, the Twin Falls case exemplifies a collision of dichotomies and frictions that continue to be played out everywhere—city versus country, Republican versus Democrat, refugee versus local, Muslim versus Christian. As refugee resettlement in other small, rural communities continues, from Missoula, Montana to Mobile, Alabama, the conflicts that emerged from Twin Falls will not be the first, nor last.

Still, in May 2017, a new flagpole was erected outside of the College of Southern Idaho (CSI) Refugee Center in Twin Falls. The flagpole celebrated a city council vote reaffirming Twin Falls’s dedication to being a “neighborly city.” Since 2016, donations to the CSI refugee center have increased, and many Twin Falls residents have spoken in support of its refugee communities. And so it seems, the refugees of Twin Falls, as with refugees everywhere else, continue to weather on.