At a Jan. 16 political event, Republican state Rep. Jay Lawrence said that refugees “take from us” and generally make life worse in Arizona, a view he admitted makes him bigoted.
“I don’t want refugees settled here,” Lawrence said at a forum hosted by the Fountain Hills AZ Tea Party. “They will take from us, they will make for lower wages for us, they will make for more expense in our schools, more expense in our emergency rooms.
“I will do all I can, as a legislator, to not accept a refugee population in the state of Arizona,” the third-term Republican from Scottsdale said. “Call me a bigot, whatever you want, I just think it’s best for the state of Arizona.”
Arizona Mirror obtained audio of Lawrence’s comments from American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal super PAC that sets out to “find what Republicans are hiding and make sure voters hear about it,” according to its website.
Lawrence’s comments about refugees pit him against Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who in December told the federal government that Arizona would accept refugees.
“Refugees arriving in the United States have been vetted and approved by the appropriate national security agencies and Department of State and have been granted legal entry to make a new home in the land of the free,” Ducey wrote.
At the Fountain Hills meeting, Lawrence touched on his disagreement with Ducey.
“The governor likes me right now,” he said. ‘He may not like me soon.”
Lawrence couldn’t be reached for comment.
In 2019, he voiced support for refugees
Lawrence’s comments opposing refugees also puts him at odds with every member of the Arizona House of Representatives, which voted unanimously last year of a resolution titled “Supporting Refugees in the State of Arizona.”
Lawrence was among those who voted for the pro-refugee resolution.
“Refugees contribute enormously to Arizona’s economy in various ways as members of the state’s workforce, as homeowners, business owners and entrepreneurs, by paying taxes, as consumers in the nation’s marketplace and by revitalizing struggling local Arizona communities,” the resolution stated.
Lawrence represents Legislative District 23, which includes part of Scottsdale, Fountain Hills and Rio Verde.
Muktar Sheikh, a refugee community advocate, said many former refugees own business in areas that Lawrence represents.
“A lot of former refugees own businesses and restaurants in his district,” he said. “It’s very unfortunate he had to say that. Refugees are very active in Arizona. They are doctors, nurses, disability caregivers, they pay taxes… He is creating more division. I wish he was able to display the successful stories of refugees.”
Refugees in the Trump era
Another Republican lawmaker, Rep. Walt Blackman of Snowflake, recently told a GOP activist he disagrees with Ducey on refugee resettlement. He later walked back his statements when contacted by the Mirror.
President Donald Trump has brought refugee resettlement to the forefront of local and state governments. In a September executive order, Trump gave cities and states a way out of participating in refugee resettlement by requiring they opt into the program with written consent.
Gov. Greg Abott of Texas took Trump’s offer to opt out of refugee resettlement.
Faith-based groups that get federal funds to assist arriving refugees sued against the executive order. A judge issued an injunction on Jan. 15 to stop state and local officials from blocking refugee resettlement in their jurisdictions.
It’s unclear what, if anything, Lawrence can do to stop refugee resettlement in Arizona, as he told the tea party group he wanted to do.
According to federal data, between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, 2019, there have been 3,219 refugees admitted into the country, and 127 of them arrived in Arizona.
Lawrence’s wife: ‘Illegals’ changing ‘dynamics of this state immeasurably’
At one point during the Jan. 16 tea party meeting, Lawrence’s wife, Judy, spoke up. She turned the discussion from refugee resettlement to illegal immigration, and warned of changes to the “dynamics of this state.”
“I think it’s irresponsible to not have some sort of limit, because we are close,” she said. “We are a border state, and we have already absorbed so many illegals, it’s changed the dynamics of this state immeasurably, and I think we need to be very careful how we handle that.”
Lawrence responded, “Isn’t it nice that I have a right-wing wife?”
Every year, the U.S. caps the number of refugees it admits. It’s a decision made by the president, known as the presidential determination on refugee admissions.
Trump has drastically reduced the number of adults and children fleeing war and persecution in other countries that the U.S. admits, as the population of displaced people worldwide has reached the highest levels since World War II.
Lawrence leaves lies unchecked
Later in the Jan. 16 discussion, an audience member spoke about “illegals coming up” to Arizona and rattled off racist stereotypes about immigrants who arrive at the southern border, including saying they are gang members, criminals, bring disease and have health issues.
“They come across the border, get free medical (care) and they become citizens,” the person said, mischaracterizing the years-long process through which immigrants become naturalized citizens. “I think our country should change something to the point where they have some control… there’s not control right now.”
“That’s why I will do everything I can, everything possible within the law, to keep illegal entry, to also limit refugee entry into the state of Arizona,” he said. “I differ with those who see a wide open door for refugees to enter the state of Arizona. I don’t.”
History of bigoted comments
Lawrence has for years been found himself in the media spotlight for making racist and bigoted comments.
In 2018, he defended Trump’s declaration that Haiti, El Salvador and countries in Africa are “shithole countries,” saying that Trump is “amazing” and that it’s OK to refer to poor countries “where people live in huts, or live seven or eight people to a small one-room house,” as shitholes – and block people who live there from coming to America.
“I have no problem with immigration. I have a problem with just willy-nilly immigration where someone comes to this country with nothing to offer but wants to take advantage of medical, education,” he told Phoenix New Times.
He was most recently criticized for saying that minority communities in Arizona have “firearms galore” during a September town hall on gun violence.
“Black and brown communities, if you look at the weapons that they have, they are not licensed. They are better armed than the police officers who are supposed to be controlling them. They have firearms galore,” Lawrence said, as reported by Cronkite News. “Black and brown communities, black communities in particular, have gangs. And the gangs have to be stopped.”
He later apologized, saying he shouldn’t have singled out particular communities
Defines ‘anything, anyone… who is here illegally as a sanctuary’
Near the end of his remarks at the Fountain Hills meeting, Lawrence spoke about his legislation to define sanctuary jurisdictions.
“My bill will define anything, anyone who comes here illegally, who is here illegally, as a sanctuary,” Lawrence said.
That’s not what his House Bill 2095 does. Instead, it defines a sactuary jurisdiction as any place that prohibits or restrics an official or government entity from “sending, receiving, maintaining or exhanging with any federal, state or local government entity information” about the immigration status of an undocumented immigrant; or fails to comply with an immigration detainer or notify federal authorities of the release from custody of an undocumented immigrant.
As he spoke about his sanctuary city proposal at the meeting, Lawrence stumbled over his words.
“Anything that keeps police or veteran’s authorities… Anything that keeps people from recognizing someone as being here illegal (sic), we’ll make them a sanctuary city,” he said. “And it won’t deal with the numbers, it will just deal with an individual, if you keep the police from arresting that person… If the police department releases individuals that should be held … for… ICE… that makes you a sanctuary city.”
There are already legal limits as to what police officers can do in relation to immigration. For example, no law enforcement agency can prolong a stop or detention just to determine someone’s immigration status or accommodate immigration-related tasks. Doing so raises constitutional concerns.
Ducey has called for a ban on sanctuary jurisdictions to be enshrined in the state’s constitution. There is no legal definition for sanctuary cities. It often refers to places with local policies that limit enforcement of federal immigration laws.
Listen to the full audio: