Rhode Island is gearing up to welcome up to 250 Afghan refugees who were evacuated after the U.S. withdrew its forces from Afghanistan. While officials in the state generally appear to be on board with accepting the refugees, one Democratic legislator has stirred the proverbial pot a bit by suggesting that Rhode Island’s own homeless and poor populations should be prioritized before the state starts housing “strangers” from another nation.
“While I welcome any individual from any country that is fleeing from persecution, violence and natural disasters,” Rep. Anastasia P. Williams (D-Providence)—a member of the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus and chairwoman of the House Labor Committee (HLC)—wrote in a statement, according to the Boston Globe. “How are we able to resettle, house, and support these refugees while we continue to ignore the plights of our current Rhode Islanders who have no guaranteed roof over their head, no food in their stomachs and no money in their pockets?”
Williams continued: “At some point, the people living on our streets today were contributing taxpayers, and they should be the first in line to be welcomed, helped, and properly assisted. I cannot in good conscience remain silent about our fellow Rhode Islanders who are desperately in need of the same support and services that will be given to these refugees.”
Williams’ statement can serve as a lesson on how simple phrasing mishaps can mess up a message. She may not have been trying to sound callous or dismissive, but “these refugees” sounds too much like “you people” to not draw criticism from folks who just don’t like seeing human beings dehumanized through political rhetoric.
And Williams’ statement sure did draw criticism, especially from Omar Bah, founder and executive director of the Providence-based Refugee Dream Center.
“All of a sudden, a person who usually is talking about representing people of color, immigrants, and poor people is speaking exactly like Trump,” Bah said in response to Williams’ statement. “She is speaking from both sides of her mouth. If Trump said that, everyone would condemn it.”
OK, to be fair, Donald Trump and conservative Republicans like him really only care about poor and homeless people when the subject of brown foreigners entering the U.S. comes up. It’s all fun and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” until a Mexican or Haitian refugee comes seeking asylum—then suddenly Republicans are all, “Won’t someone please think of the American homeless?”
In fact, the only other time Republicans seem to care about homeless people is when there’s a homelessness problem in a blue state and they get to use the unhoused as a political chip to rally for control over the said state.
Williams, on the other hand, is the HLC chair, so her concern for Rhode Island’s homeless population likely isn’t a fairweather political thing — it’s a major part of her job.
Anyway, Bah continued going in on Williams’ statement, saying in part, “The Afghans are people who supported Americans and risked their lives. They were translators and drivers and allies, and it is a humanitarian crisis. I don’t understand how someone would try to categorize them as the ‘other.’”
He also said of Williams’ statement that he’s “most particularly surprised that it would come from a Black Democratic legislator who has championed immigrants and people of color over the years.”
Bah wasn’t the only one to weigh in on what Williams had to say. It wasn’t long before a Republican white woman entered the chat even though ain’t nobody asked her nothin’.
“As Rhode Island welcomes the tired, hungry, and traumatized Afghan refugees who have escaped the brutal hands of the Taliban, I for one will be looking forward not to discourse about who gets a seat at the table, but in building a larger table,” Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung (R-Cransont) said. “Whether it’s private or public support for interpreters, medical assistance, and legal aid, it will be my pleasure to work hard with leaders like Omar Bah and the Refugee Dream Center to welcome these strangers to our state, and embrace them as friends.”
If “white woman Republican tries to out-human Black woman Democrat” wasn’t on your list of likely things to happen in 2021, trust that you are not alone.
On Wednesday, Williams responded to the backlash her statement brought on, saying, “First and foremost, I stated I welcome the refugees—that is the part everyone is skipping over.” (Again, just to be fair, people probably skipped over that part for reasons similar to why we all just stop listening or reading after a white person says, “I’m not racist, but…”)
“I welcome anyone from anywhere,” she continued. “However, I want to point out and emphasize that while bringing these individuals and families over here to provide them with a better way, we have our own citizens right here begging and pleading for the same opportunities about to be given out to strangers.”
Is it just me, or do Williams and Fenton-Fung both seem to be going out of their way to emphasize that the Afghan refugees are “strangers?”
Anyway, it’s an interesting debate that requires a lot of patience for nuance to dissect.
Maybe Williams had a point and was just careless in her delivery, or maybe the humanitarian Olympics just shouldn’t be a thing.
What do y’all think?