Mississippi town reverses itself and says 'no' to refugees
Jan. 09, 2016
The tiny farming community of Louise was an exception in a Deep South where resistance to resettling refugees from the Syrian conflict was ramping up after the attacks in Paris. Those opposed say extremists could be among those who are resettled.
At the same time that this small rural community was welcoming refugees, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said he would do "everything humanly possible" to keep refugees from his state.
Then, last Tuesday, the votes of the month-long referendum in Louise were counted: the tally was 37 against and three in favor of welcoming refugees, according to Mayor Thomas Ruffin Smith. Following the vote count, the board of aldermen rescinded the resolution.
In November — at the height of a national debate over whether Syrian refugees should be welcomed — the Mississippi Delta town's board passed a resolution to welcome refugees, calling it a "Christian duty." The town's decree in November was a rare show of warmth toward refugees.
Smith, the Louise mayor, said he was disappointed by the outcome of referendum.
"This is a fear and ignorance problem, and one leads to the other," the mayor said in a telephone interview. "Me personally, I think it's the right thing to do. There's people out there in the world that are in a hard way."
Louise sits in the heart of the Mississippi Delta and has a population of about 200 people and about half as many registered voters, Smith said. It started as a railroad town and grew to have three grocery stores and two banks, but now there's only a convenience store and one bank, the mayor said.
The resolution said the town wanted to express its "willingness and intent" to welcome refugees "to the fullest extent of its abilities."
But after the resolution was approved, some townsfolk got upset.
Among them was J. Ed Henderson, a 61-year-old Navy veteran with the local chapter of the NAACP. He had run against Smith for the position of mayor.
In a telephone interview, Henderson questioned the mayor's motives. Henderson said the mayor, who owns several properties and land, could profit from refugee resettlements.
"He has a good opportunity to gain from Syrian refugees," Henderson said. "When you look at the number of properties he owns, he stands to rent those properties out."
Smith dismissed that charge. "That's 100 percent his conjecture," the mayor said. "You don't serve the community for self-profit but for the interests of the community."
Henderson also said that as a Navy veteran he had a better understanding of the threat extremists pose. He said the mayor "has no concept of terrorism and how they can infiltrate a certain area."
The mayor said refugees should not be "stereotyped."
He said he doesn't like it when people "use a stereotypical image of someone from Mississippi as being rural or unsophisticated" and added "I don't think it's fair that we stereotype refugees."
Bringing refugees to Louise would bring some much-needed new life to a struggling, and fading, town, the mayor said.
"Small towns get smaller," he said, bemoaning how the town has shrunk and lost businesses over his lifetime. "If something doesn't happen, there won't be a town."