‘Refugees are welcome here:’ Louisville rallies to support immigrants

The symbolism was obvious. Louisville residents derided President Donald Trump’s immigration ban while standing in front of the Muhammad Ali Center, a museum that honors Louisville’s most famous son, a humanitarian and one of the most well-known Muslims in the world.

The Rally for American Values was hosted “to voice support for our nation and our city, which was founded and is strengthened by immigrants,” according to Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, whose office organized the event.

The rally was held three days after Trump signed an executive order preventing refugees from entering the United States for 120 days and indefinitely banning refugees from Syria. The order also prohibits citizens of Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen from traveling to the United States for 90 days.

The president said the measure aimed to protect the country from terroristic threats. However, critics have called it discriminatory, noting that the predominate religion in all seven countries is Islam. Others pointed out that Trump did not place restriction on Middle Eastern countries where he’s done business, including Saudi Arabia, where the majority for Sept. 11 attackers were from.

At the rally Monday night, religious, government and community leaders spoke to a larger-than-anticipated crowd at the Ali Center. An estimated 5,000 people filled the plaza, the walkway between the Ali Center and the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts and the street below.

“We are the future of this country, and we want to make sure our voice is heard,” said Divyansh Sharma, a medical student at the University of Louisville. “The decisions that are made now affect us 10 years from now.”

Fellow UofL medical student Madison Kommor added that he wanted to attend because of his family’s Jewish heritage, noting parallels between the historic treatment of Muslims, immigrants and the Jewish people.

‘The reason I came out is because there is so much hate and discrimination going on in the news and in the country right now,” chimed in Brooke Kimmel, a pharmacy student at Purdue University. “I think we need moments like this to remember what America and unity are about.”

Ahmaad Edmund, a member of the Ali Center’s Council of Students shown in the video above, called on residents to come together despite their differences. He described people as various instruments that need to work together in harmony.

“Louisvillians, I say today that I hope the day will come when we’ll be able to sing that song — This land is my land. This land it your land, but most of all, this land is our land,” he said.

While the rally was to support all immigrants, Islam was a main focus given Trump’s executive order. Haleh Karimi, executive director of Interfaith Paths of Peace, said that Islam should not be blamed for the actions of people like Osama Bin Laden or groups such as ISIS. Islam is a religion of peace, not a cancer or ideology, she added.

“True Muslims are not those that are representing Islam in a violent way,” she said. “We need to stop to referring to them as Islamic radical terrorists and refer to them as pure terrorists.”

The voices in the crowd rose up in chants throughout the event, including several led by Donald Lassere, president and CEO of the Ali Center, who emceed the rally.

“Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here,” Lassere chanted with the crowd.

The number of refugees coming to Louisville

Kentucky is among the top 10 states for refugee resettlement per capita, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. In 2016, the state received 54 refugees per 100,000 residents; the U.S. national average is 26 refugees per 100,000 residents, Pew reported.  The most refugees came to the United States from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, followed by Syria.

Two local nonprofits — Kentucky Refugee Ministries and Catholic Charities of Louisville  — resettled 1,399 refugees in Louisville during fiscal year 2016, according to data provided by the Kentucky Office of Refugees, an arm of Catholic Charities of Louisville. The top countries of origin were the Democratic Republic of the Congo with 354 refugees; Somalia with 246; and Syria with 213.

Since 1993, 18,822 refugees from 53 countries have been resettled in Louisville, according to the Kentucky Office of Refugees.

Kentucky is among the top states for refugee resettlement. | Courtesy of Kentucky Office for Refugees

These numbers do not include the number of immigrants who traveled to the United States illegally and built new lives here. Pew Research Center estimated that there are 4.4 million undocumented immigrants ages 30 and under living in the United States. Shaky Palacios, who moved to the United States from Mexico at age 12, is one of them.

“Having been raised in a household where values are such a big deal, such as respect, community and love, my parents never feared or doubted one minute bringing us to this country because they knew we would learn other high-spoken values such as fairness, faith and justice — American values, they called them,” she said.

In her speech, Palacios noted that despite negative portrayals of undocumented immigrants, she has no debt, pays her taxes and has never been arrested.

Shaky Palacios is a DREAMER who came to the United States from Mexico at age 12. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

“In Louisville and around the country, these are people who start businesses, join the PTAs, pay taxes and make valuable contributions to their communities,” Mayor Fischer said. “And last week’s travel ban on anyone entering the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries runs counter to the America we know and love — a strong, courageous, outwardly looking, optimistic, multicultural nation.”

He encouraged attendees to get to know one another and “just be a good neighbor.”

Following the ban, some U.S. mayors, including those in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., restated their commitment to serve as “sanctuary cities,” meaning they would not use city funds or resources to enforce immigration laws. Fischer has not declared Louisville a sanctuary city, a largely symbolic title, but said previously that city officials would not start rounding people up.

During his speech at the rally, Fischer again stopped short of calling Louisville a sanctuary city. However, he stated that Louisville Metro Police Department’s main objective is public safety. It is not the police department’s job to enforce immigration laws, and no resources will diverted from public safety initiatives, he said.

Ky. Rep. Attica Scott tweeted out a petition Monday afternoon calling on Fischer to designate Louisville a sanctuary city. The petition had more than 1,000 signatures as of 8:30 p.m. Monday.

The city’s Office of Globalization director Bryan Warren told Insider Louisville before the rally that refugees and immigrants, whether documented or undocumented, want to be safe and that the city is focused on long-term sustainable plans to make them feel welcome.

“We want to ensure that those communities have the resources, the tools, the pathways to careers and educational opportunities that are going to provide them with the kind of successes that they want,” he said. “I think this rally is emblematic of the messaging we want to put out into the community.”

Kentucky politicians react to the executive order

Last year before his death, Ali released a statement about Islam that some perceived as a slight aimed at then-presidential candidate Trump, but family spokesman Bob Gunnell told The New York Times that it was intended for Islam extremists. The statement did, however, address politicians in general.

“Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is,” Ali said in the statement.

Mitch McConnell | File Photo

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell told ABC News in an interview Monday that he is in favor of increased vetting but cautioned against action that targets a specific religion.

“I think it’s a good idea to tighten the vetting process, but I also think it’s important to remember that some of our best sources in the war against radical Islamic terrorist are Muslims, both in this country and overseas,” McConnell said.

Kelsey Cooper, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, told Insider Louisville in an email that Paul campaigned for secure borders during the election.

“He is committed to working with the President and his colleagues to do so,” she said in the email.

U.S. Congressman John Yarmuth this past weekend attended a community gathering at the Turkish American Friendship Center in Louisville where he spoke out against the order.

“I will fight Trump’s hate with every ounce of energy I have,” Yarmuth tweeted afterward.

Other Kentucky politicians have remained quiet, neither coming out against or in favor of Trump’s executive order.

Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, has made no public statement regarding Trump’s ban. And while 16 other Democratic attorneys general signed a statement condemning the ban as “unconstitutional, un-American and unlawful,” Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has not commented on the ban.

Meanwhile, religious organizations have been quick to speak out against the executive order.

The Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky issued a news release Friday noting that the Episcopal Church as a whole welcomes refugees and helps resettle 5,000 refugees each year.

Kentucky Refugee Ministries and Catholic Charities of Louisville helped relocate 1,399 during fiscal year 2016. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

“Refugee resettlement is a form of ministry, and one that we, and many other churches and faith-based organizations, cherish. The work of Episcopal Migration Ministries is God’s work, and we show the face of God through the care and compassion in that work,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church said in a statement. “I ask President Trump to continue the powerful work of our refugee resettlement program without interruption, recognizing the long wait and screening process that means refugees wait months and sometimes years to enter the country.”

In a statement on its website, Catholic Charities of Louisville, which also helps resettle refugees, said it was disappointed by the news.

“We will continue to serve our current clients to the best of our ability, as we to learn how this new policy will affect services,” the statement reads. “The United States Refugee Resettlement program is the difference between life and death for those refugees in the most vulnerable parts of the world. As an agency serving clients for more than 40 years under this program, welcoming people fleeing violence and conflict in various regions of the world is part of our identity since, as a Catholic institution, we are called to protect the vulnerable and recognize the human dignity of all people.”

In response to the executive order, nonprofit Kentucky Refugee Ministries posted on its website ways that people can support refugees through monetary donations and advocacy.

Local businesses also have joined in to support Kentucky Refugee Ministries. Holy Grale, Gralehaus, and Louisville Beer Store are hosting an event called Ales for Advocacy. On Sunday, Feb. 5, the businesses will donate 10 percent of their sales to Kentucky Refugee Ministries.