GOP lawmakers differ over accepting Afghan kids

GOP lawmakers differ over accepting Afghan kids

In this Thursday, June 24, 2021, file photo, Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, speaks during a vote on the Arizona budget at the Capitol. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Republican lawmakers have been staking out conflicting positions on whether Afghan refugees should be resettled here, and the fear of public backlash led the enrollment of refugee children to be delayed in one local school district. 

The enrollment of about 80 refugee children in Scottsdale schools was delayed due to concerns about how the public response might affect them, according to a memo Scottsdale Unified School District Superintendent Scott Menzel sent to the district’s Governing Board on January 21. 

“My team was devastated as we recognize the importance of serving these children and are mobilizing to provide the supports necessary to ensure they are welcomed into our schools,” Menzel wrote, adding that he plans to continue meetings with local officials and the International Rescue Committee “to continue collaborating on next steps and messaging.” 

The refugee students have since started classes at three Scottsdale schools. 

Menzel wrote that district workers and IRC staff started meeting in mid-January, after district officials were notified of the presence of the refugee children. Subsequently, “a communication was sent by the Cherokee (Elementary School) principal to his staff that included a fair amount of information, including some inaccurate information, that subsequently found its way into social media.” 

Menzel was referring to an email principal Walter Chantler had sent to staff that said Cherokee and Sequoyah Elementary schools might be taking in about 50 Afghan refugee children. The email, which inaccurately stated that the refugees had been in Scottsdale since August – they arrived in January – was shared on social media by conservative critics of the district. 

“On Friday, there were numerous tweets sounding an alarm about the district welcoming these students into our schools,” Menzel continued. “We addressed this in both the weekly update to staff as well as our communication to families, but the impact of the increased chatter was a decision by the IRC (International Rescue Committee) to pull back on the planned full day mass registration on Monday in order to give them time to communicate with families regarding what they were walking into.” 

In August, when news came out in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the Taliban would be seeking to come here, Gov. Doug Ducey and House Speaker Rusty Bowers both announced they would welcome Afghan refugees into Arizona. Rep. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, also voiced support for the Afghan refugees.  

“Afghans protected me when I served in their country, and I intend to protect them when they’re here in their new country,” Kaiser said on the House floor two weeks ago. 

Other Republican lawmakers and candidates came out against resettling Afghan refugees as soon as the Biden administration’s plans were announced. The issue returned to the spotlight in Scottsdale last month, when about 300 refugees were temporarily moved to a former Homewood Suites hotel there. In a short video filmed in front of the hotel by Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, he raised concerns that the Afghans had not been adequately vetted and would overburden Scottsdale’s schools. 

“The public was not made aware of this,” Kavanagh said. “The only notification that’s been reported was to the local school board a week ago, which also didn’t tell the residents what was going on. We don’t know who is coming here, why they’re coming here and what security precautions are going to be enacted to protect the community.” 

His seatmate, Rep. Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, has been decrying an increase in panhandling which he blames on the refugees. In an interview on “The Conservative Circus with James T. Harris,” Chaplik said he had seen children among the panhandlers, and questioned why they weren’t in school or whether they were even related to the adults they were begging with. 

“I feel this whole thing is very corrupt,” Chaplik said. “None of it seems right. If they’re truly refugees, this is not how we help them in America, and on the surface, it seems like the Biden administration really doesn’t care about these refugees, or they’re intentionally trying to assimilate them into the most affluent neighborhoods which (don’t) have any of these services they need nearby, which is just making chaos here in Scottsdale or any other city that tries to put them in.” 

Menzel told the Arizona Capitol Times that the district was prepared to start teaching refugee children and that it was the IRC’s call to delay their enrollment. He lamented what he called misunderstandings about the refugees. 

“When you look at people who speculate about who’s there, why they’re there, without having all the information, it leads to conclusions that are not appropriate,” Menzel said. “And so when you know more of the story that these are families who are here at the invitation of the U.S. government, who provided support to our troops when they were in Afghanistan, and you recognize that because of the work that they did, their families who remain in Afghanistan may be in harm’s way if anyone discovers where they are – you know, we’re trying to proceed very cautiously here.” 

Menzel also responded to critics who question whether the district has the classroom space or other resources to take on the new non-English speaking students, saying that the district serves plenty of English language learners and has trained staff and community volunteers willing to help the refugees. 

“So, I think it’s in the absence of what people know, they’ll often fill the void in with things that they believe to be true, but don’t know to be true,” Menzel said. “And I think we have a vested interest in talking about what’s true and factual, not what’s speculative.” 

Wayne Schutsky contributed to this report.