POLITICS
01/31/2017 09:18 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2017

Trump Supporters In This Small Town Love His Controversial Refugee Ban

They don't see many refugees, but they're worried about terrorists.

HARRISVILLE, W.Va. ― Many Americans were shocked when President Donald Trump followed through Friday on a campaign proposal to bar travelers from Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Tony Collins was not among them. A 72-year-old retiree who voted for Trump, Collins fully expected the ban ― and when it came down, he cheered.

“He’s doing exactly what he said he’d do,” said Collins, who still flies a Trump flag in his front yard nearly three months after the election. “I feel safer already.”

Collins’ view on the highly controversial ban is a popular one in this northern West Virginia town, even as protests of the measure have roiled airports around the country. Republican voters outnumber Democrats roughly 2 to 1 here, and Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by a 70-point margin, capturing nearly 84 percent of the vote.

There was no secret to Trump’s success here. Mining jobs have disappeared from West Virginia over the years, and this area relies on oil-and-gas work. The candidate’s promises to cut regulation resonated with voters. But so did his plan to halt the trickle of Syrian refugees onto U.S. shores, Collins said. He views the ban as part of a larger package of promises that Trump made to prioritize Americans, even if this one has nothing to do with jobs.

Asked where this particular Trump promise ranks in importance among all the others, Collins dismissed the premise of the question.

“They’re all important,” he said, the television in his den tuned to Fox News.

He’s doing exactly what he said he’d do. I feel safer already. Tony Collins

Trump’s executive order blocks refugees from resettling in the U.S. for at least the next four months, as the new administration reshapes the screening process. It also forbids Syrian refugees from coming here indefinitely, and it prevents people from seven countries ― Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Yemen ― from entering the U.S. for at least the next three months. Most of the citizens of those countries are Muslim.

The Trump administration said it was halting refugee resettlement in order to implement “extreme vetting,” although an extensive vetting system is already in place. The order effectively turns away thousands of people who sought safety and new lives in America.

The move prompted mass protests at multiple airports where even visa and green card holders were being stopped and detained under the order. It also sowed chaos in Washington, where on Monday Trump dismissed his acting attorney general, Sally Yates, after she refused to defend the order in court.

But here in Harrisville, the executive order has been met with nods of approval, although few refugees have actually been settling in West Virginia. Indeed, the state has been among the least welcoming. In fiscal year 2015, a mere 32 refugees landed in West Virginia, none of them from Syria, according to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Locals who say they empathize with refugees fleeing war and devastation still contend the pause was needed.

“I have great sympathy for them, especially those harmless little children who never hurt anybody,” said Toby McCormick, a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran. “But during that four months, we could get a lot of people killed here. If we stop things and do all the vetting and if at the end everything is OK, then they can come in.”

McCormick said he believed the ban was constitutional and not at all discriminatory.

“There are seven countries, and they’re predominantly Muslim. But that’s not all the Muslim countries that are out there. It’s not against Muslims ― it’s against terrorists,” he said.

What’s 120 days? We need to clean our house up before others can come in. Autumn Bunner

There is no evidence that any of the refugees on hold are terrorists. If anything, the data suggest that they’re incredibly unlikely to commit acts of terror. The libertarian Cato Institute found that over the past 40 years, the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack by a refugee was 1 in 3.64 billion per year.

But such fears are still widespread among the American public. A Reuters poll released Tuesday found that a plurality of Americans backed the president’s ban, though it remains an extraordinarily polarizing issue. Forty-nine percent of those polled said they agreed with the order, while 41 percent said they disagreed with it, and another 10 percent said they were unsure.

Michelle Kearns Lee, who works at a small cafe and bakery in Harrisville, understands how divisive the issue can be. Some friends that she has had for 20 years think she is racist, she said, because of her unwavering support for Trump and proposals like the refugee ban. Her primary concern during the election was jobs and the economy, but she put the halt of Syrian refugees “in the top 10.”

“I think it’s the right move. It needs to be done,” Kearns Lee said. “It’s important for the safety of our country. If other countries don’t do it, they’re not smart.”

Autumn Bunner, 38, said she didn’t understand all the fuss over a four-month ban on refugees.

“What’s 120 days?” she asked, incredulous. “We need to clean our house up before others can come in.”

Bunner and her friend, Wanda Hissem, were at work inside Hissem’s shop, The Flower Basket. Hissem still flies a Trump-Pence flag out in front of her flower shop, which is not a particularly risky business decision in this area. Her support for Trump goes beyond the issues: “He said everything we felt at one point or another.”

The freeze on refugees is not particularly important to Hissem. Many refugees “outwork a lot of our own boys and girls” when they resettle here and try to build lives, she said. And she doesn’t feel personally threatened by them, noting with a laugh that she owns a gun. But she, too, views the ban as a necessity.

“I think we need to stop everything and find out where we are at this point,” Hissem said. “We need to step back and take a look. It’s nothing personal against the refugees.”

Hissem, like others interviewed in Harrisville, had a hard time relating to the protesters who had packed airports in recent days to denounce the ban as a cruel violation of American principles. She said she felt no kinship at all with the hundreds of thousands of women who had converged on Washington and elsewhere to protest Trump’s presidency, either.

Collins had watched footage of the airport protests on Fox News. To him, it seemed like the protesters had a lot of time on their hands, though he conceded that taking to the streets was their right.

As he put it, “They’re Americans, I guess.”

Correction: Cato puts the odds of an American being murdered in a terror attack by a refugee at 1 in 3.64 billion ― not million ― per year.

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