Spotlight on Boise, Idaho's Refugee Program: Our Town, Your Town | Not in Our Town

Spotlight on Boise, Idaho's Refugee Program: Our Town, Your Town

This article is reprinted from Medium with permission. It was written by Gail Ablow, a visiting media fellow in democracy at Carnegie Corporation of New York.

There are cities and towns in the United States where local leaders are conflicted about accepting refugees. But in Boise, Idaho, where a healthy economy is constrained by an aging workforce, many people see refugees as part of the solution. This midsized city has a low cost of living and a growing reputation for being welcoming. As defined by international law, refugees are people who are forced to flee their homelands because of “a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.”

By the time most refugees arrive in the U.S. they have learned to fear the police in their own chaotic, war-torn countries, and most are unfamiliar with U.S. customs and laws — a situation that can easily lead to conflict with law enforcement. But in Boise, the police department is right there, working alongside the official resettlement agencies, to help integrate, to educate, and to make these vulnerable newcomers feel safe.

Boise’s refugee resettlement program began in the 1970s as people from Southeast Asia fled the overthrow of United States-supported governments there. After the Refugee Act of 1980 was passed, providing for the admission and resettlement of people fleeing their countries for humanitarian reasons, more than 19,000 refugees from approximately 50 countries eventually made their new homes in Idaho. Most recently, Boise’s largest groups have come from Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Bhutan, Afghanistan, and Somalia. By 2007 the Boise Police Department recognized the need for a full-time cultural liaison officer to build a bridge to these newcomers. When William Bones became chief of police in 2015 he continued to fund the position and expanded the program despite a tight budget.

A third-generation police officer, Chief William Bones has served in the Boise Police Department for 25 years.

A third-generation police officer, Chief William Bones has served in the Boise Police Department for 25 years.


Chief William Bones opened his department’s doors to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) in 2016, welcoming their researchers, sharing expertise, and participating in ongoing discussions that helped PERF evaluate and understand best practices for community policing in refugee neighborhoods. The Boise Police Department became one of four case studies for an in-depth report published in May 2017: Refugee Outreach and Engagement Programs for Police Agencies.

Chief Bones is a third-generation police officer. Growing up in eastern Oregon, Boise was the nearest “big city — the place you went to for concerts or for school shopping,” he says. After graduating from college, Bones settled in Boise and raised his family there.

GAIL ABLOW: How have you seen Boise changing?

CHIEF WILLIAM BONES: Boise’s grown quite a bit. You’re seeing a lot more youth, a lot of energy, a lot of that new business vibe. We’re obviously seeing a lot more diversity in the population base when you walk down the streets. It’s not just in somebody’s race or their religion, but it’s in what they might be wearing — a hijab or traditional central African tribal wear. Depending on what part of the city you are in, hearing the languages spoken, seeing the different cultures, seeing the different coffee shop or tea shop, or the great ethnic restaurants that are starting to open — it’s that kind of change. We’re starting to become more of a mixing pot, where we have always been so much of a homogeneous, white community.

"Our immigrant population is key to the economy of Idaho and goes back for a couple of hundred years. But in addition to that, Boise’s a 'top ten' per capita refugee resettlement site and has been for the last 11 years."

ABLOW: Is there a distinction between the immigrant and the refugee communities?

BONES: Absolutely. We’ve always had a strong immigrant population and we have both legal and illegal immigrants. Our immigrant population is key to the economy of Idaho and goes back for a couple of hundred years. But in addition to that, Boise’s a “top ten” per capita refugee resettlement site and has been for the last 11 years. This will be our twelfth. We don’t have the most refugees coming to Boise, but as a percentage of our population we’re in that top ten.

We take a very active role, particularly with our refugee communities, because their relationships with government, and with the police in particular, were very different in those countries from which they have fled, where police might have been a threat to them or a cause for fear when they came knocking at the door. We want them to see us as a resource and somewhere that they can go to for safety.

ABLOW: What are some of the biggest obstacles they face when they come here?

BONES: Last week I greeted a family that was coming off a plane. The first obstacle was just helping them get through the airport, because they don’t read the language, they don’t speak English. I just am always impressed with the courage of somebody, going through what they’ve gone through in the refugee camps, and then coming to a country where they’ve never been, don’t understand the culture, don’t speak the language, and they step off that plane just with the hope of making a new life.

It impresses me and it tells me something about the kind of people they are before they ever arrive. That’s been reinforced a hundred times with the people that I’ve gotten to know from our refugee communities. And seeing what they do to build a life here — think about it. You’re an American, you know our laws, you know our customs, our culture, the language. If you were suddenly picked up and put in another country with nothing, and maybe lacking in education or in job skills — and even if you’ve got those job skills, your certifications are no longer any good. Maybe you were an engineer where you came from, and here if you can get a job in sanitation that’s going to be a great job.

So you’ve really got to think about what they’re putting themselves through. And often, unfortunately, they’re facing the fear of the communities that they’re walking into. People that maybe don’t understand or are looking at a national news story and applying it to this person, and looking at them through a very negative lens. That’s a big, big step for any person and they’re doing it with their whole families. But they’re doing it to make a better life.

ABLOW: The longtime residents of Boise — what kind of obstacles and fears are they dealing with?

BONES: Over the years I’ve seen a constant improvement of the relationship and acceptance of our refugee community as they’ve come to Boise. There have been spikes, especially when something happens: 9/11 was a horrible incident and had just an incredibly negative impact and still does on so many in our Muslim population. But you saw acceptance come back. And you saw a rebound of, “Hey, these people that have come here to Boise are part of our community.” So when those small groups that are very vocal come out with negative comments, it’s amazing how much of the city responds. People stand up to say, “No. That’s not right.”

"Our church communities, as well as our refugee resettlement agencies, have been a wonderful asset within the community to help refugees as they arrive and integrate — to obtain employment, to get housing, to learn the language, to learn the culture, to learn the laws — so that they can be a part of a Boise community."

And becoming part of the United States, becoming an American citizen — I encourage anybody out there, if you ever get the chance, go to one of the ceremonies where somebody is receiving their American citizenship. It is incredible. These people are committed to this country. They appreciate the freedoms and every single piece of what it means to be here.

ABLOW: Explain how all the resettlement agencies, the churches, and the police department work together.

BONES: For any program to be successful having refugees come to your community, it requires a partnership. For police and law enforcement, you’re welcoming community members that have an absolute fear of you as a police officer in uniform, and of government. You need partners to help you establish that initial communication and to help grow that trust. You need the resources of the community. A lot of times we turn to our churches, businesses, and landlords to get involved and we say, “Oh, this is going to be a little bit difficult to walk somebody through a background check to get them hired” — or, “What are their skills?” — or, “We can’t tell you about their rental history or their housing history” — because there’s nobody you can reach out to. “But can you work with us?”

The refugee resettlement agencies do this for a living, so they’re one of the greatest backbones to the system, to getting people integrated. But it takes everybody coming to the table together and working in partnership.

We usually have a huge Thanksgiving dinner at my house. All the relatives, right? Last year everybody was away. It was going to be my wife, my daughter, and we were inviting some friends over. And we thought, “What a great opportunity to invite somebody else into our house.” So I reached out to one of the refugee resettlement agencies and we invited a family that had come from Iraq. He is working two full-time jobs as a janitor, supporting four kids, and he couldn’t have been happier. Their big day out is to go to Walmart and then, afterward, to go to a local pizza place here in Boise. English was a challenge for him, and his wife was still learning the language. The kids had adapted, they were in school doing fantastically. But he told me this story: he was a jeweler, where he came from, who owned two jewelry shops. He was kidnapped, held for ransom, and while he was held for ransom, his jewelry stores were completely emptied, robbed, everything was taken. When he was finally released, he was told he had 10 days to get out of the country or they would kill him. Then he had to go to a refugee camp. It took him years to get to the U.S.

"They had been in the United States for four years and they had never been in an American’s house."

That’s something we have got to change as a society. Are they a neighbor? Are they going to your church? Is it somebody you work with? Taking that extra moment to say hello, make a personal connection and then invite them into your house. In any country, as anybody who travels a lot across the world knows, that’s what people do. They invite you into their house: “Come have a meal with us! Come have coffee or tea.” And that’s how people make connections.

The Boise Police Department launched a mentoring program in 2017, pairing police officers with refugees selected by Global Talent Idaho, a group that works with skilled immigrants and refugees to help them reclaim and rebuild their professional careers in their new home. Participants at the first meeting of the program included (l–r): Emma Lovel, from El Salvador, sharing her life story with officer Robin Williams; Saif Al Anbagi, from Iraq, describing his goals to officer Randy Arthur; and Mubarak Ahmed, from Sudan.


ABLOW: That is a perfect segue into asking you to explain why it’s important for your police department to have a refugee liaison officer.

BONES: The best ideas in policing don’t come from the top, they come from the people who are doing the work. And this idea came from Officer Shelli Sonnenberg, who was working out there on the streets. She said, “I’ve got these refugees coming in, and when we respond to calls, it’s simply because they don’t know or understand the American laws.” Also, when a police officer knocked at a refugee’s door, it was causing amazing amounts of stress.

I can see that if I was living in a new country, and I come from a country where police are not there to protect you, I’d probably be scared if police were knocking on my door. You are always a little nervous, even when an American police officer knocks on your door. The idea that Officer Sonnenberg came up with was to have a liaison to this refugee community. And we’ve built a program around that, which Officer Dustin Robinson is now continuing.

We have classes for our incoming refugee groups. We build strong relationships at multiple levels of the agency. We get them to know an officer face-to-face, on a first-name basis. We tell leaders among all of our refugee groups, “Here’s my number. Call me.” We extend this invitation to all the different leadership, whether it’s a tribal leader, or a religious leader, or just somebody who is a coordinator for that community. We significantly expanded the number of interpreters we have, and we are breaking down those barriers of language.

We used to always use an interpretation phone line. Anybody in law enforcement will tell you that it is very expensive, and it’s third-person. It’s not personal. It’s not a great way to communicate. But now we actually use our refugee population; we make them part of our interpreter program. It’s a paid program. We are building that next level of communication and relationship. We also have a refugee internship. It’s a paid position. The whole object of it is to build a relationship with somebody who is part of a refugee community, to have them partner and help our refugee liaison officer do outreach.

And then, hopefully, they will become a partner of our department in the long term — if not with us, then maybe with the city. At the very least, they’re going to go back to their community, and that’s a personal tie that we’ve built. And if something bad happens, they are going to say, “You can go to the Boise Police Department.” It’s everything from teaching traffic laws and what you need to do to get a driver’s license, to knowing that hitting your wife in the United States is illegal, because in some countries that is legal. A lot of it is about building trust, and that’s the number one thing.

"Any community that might feel disaffected or alienated from the greater community is a community that police departments want to reach. It takes more focus and effort from the police side to create that trust with new refugees. The onus, and part of our duty, is to reach out to those communities."

ABLOW: Is it expensive to have a refugee liaison officer?

BONES: Officer Robinson is our liaison officer. That’s a full-time officer dedicated to outreach. But he’s also handling a ton of calls that other police officers would be going to, and he’s creating relationships and solving problems. You don’t have to have another officer responding to the same location seven, eight, nine, ten times. So, in the long run, that really offsets any cost you have. We are trying to grow the program because it is so effective. I can’t afford, with Boise’s size, to have a half-dozen full-time liaison officers, but we’re creating a refugee mentor program.

We asked for officers to volunteer. I have to tell you, we were able to pick from a group that ranged from a 25-year senior field officer, a K9 officer, to some of our newer officers, and really get a great cross-section of this agency. They want to participate as mentors, do outreach, and build communication flow between our refugee community and our police officers. And if you talk to one of these officers, nobody has a better understanding of the problems and the importance of building that trust relationship with our refugee population.

Officer Robinson is also the ambassador inside the department to spread that understanding. There are lots of little cultural cues that you don’t realize might be an insult to somebody who’s come from outside and hasn’t yet learned our culture. But we really want to leverage that with this mentor program and have multiple officers who have built that relationship. We’re excited about that.

ABLOW: Was it challenging to get buy-in from the police department?

BONES: Boise wasn’t always this progressive. We didn’t start this because we thought it would be a great idea out of the blue. We really learned from some bad mistakes. In 1992 we were getting Laotians and, to tell you the truth, we didn’t do anything. There was no integration. And obviously they quickly became disaffected, insular from the rest of society. We saw crime starting to happen. We had gangs. We had serious gambling, racketeering, threats against that population, and nobody would report it because there was no trust level.

Trying to investigate crimes became very difficult because no communication had been established. And when crime starts in any area, any vulnerable population that you have — it doesn’t have to be refugees or immigrant communities — it can be your elderly, it can be somebody that’s got a different religious belief. If you allow crime to fester, it will spread. And that’s what we started to see. It really was a wake-up call for Boise in the way we needed to respond to our refugee communities.

We didn’t know this at the time, but that’s the most powerful way to affect a potential terrorist incident. Whether it’s somebody that’s homegrown, an American kid that is fifth-generation, born-and-bred USA, or it’s somebody that’s come from a foreign country — the possibility that they do something against the people that they’re living with, the community that surrounds them, comes when they feel alienated. So you want to do the outreach and make people feel that they’re a part of your community. It’s the absolute most effective way you’ve got to prevent that incident from happening — whether it’s a school incident or a major terrorist attack.

ABLOW: Do you know what kind of impact you have had with your community policing approach?

BONES: As with some of the best programs that you see in policing, that community outreach — whether it’s school resource officers, or officers on bikes in a park — it’s hard to measure the output. Anecdotally, we see far fewer calls than we did in the past years. But that’s hard to measure against crime trends, because it’s the crime that never occurred. But I believe it pays great dividends for a community. Our kids who maybe have never been out of the country are learning more about the world around them, which makes them richer citizens and expands their horizons. It pays incredible dividends for those refugees that are coming into your community, and really accelerates integration — making a much richer, more diverse community. People get jobs that fit their skill levels, which grows your community tax base; you get new businesses, new ideas.

With an unemployment rate of 2.9 percent, well below the national rate, and the fastest job growth in the country, Idaho has consistently ranked among the top states for refugees resettled per capita. For years the state took in as many as 1,000 of the 70,000 allowed into the country each year. That number is now dropping, as the country begins to accept fewer refugees overall, but of the newcomers who make it to Idaho, mostly from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, the majority will settle in Boise, the state capital. 


ABLOW: Do you still get that American-born Boise resident who says, “Hey, Chief, what’s up with all the refugees coming to our city?”

BONES: Boise’s certainly not immune to an antagonistic group of people who feel that there should not be any refugees coming into our community or our country. What we believe is that we shouldn’t get involved politically in those discussions. We believe it’s our duty to make this a safer community for every member of our community.

ABLOW: There has been a lot of talk in the news about sanctuary cities and what defines them. I know Boise is not a sanctuary city. But what are your thoughts on this?

BONES: It’s been an incredibly tough two years for our refugee communities, also our immigrant communities, and any community that doesn’t fit the traditional definition, sometimes, of being American. The talk in the media and this vitriolic diatribe that’s come across on social media or in print, it’s horrible to see. And so we’ve seen those fear levels just accelerate through the roof.

We haven’t seen the crimes go up. But we are seeing the fear level climb. It has a horrible effect on everybody, and most of all on those who maybe have gotten here recently and haven’t gotten that feeling of acceptance yet. We had a group that Officer Robinson went to speak with the other day. Their bags were packed because they thought the FBI was coming to pick them up. “We’re not here to arrest you. We’re not here to take you away.” Building that message on the front end of a meeting is one of the key things. That’s where this long-term trust relationship with the greater community really pays off.

When it comes to sanctuary cities, everybody’s got a different definition. I hate to see people get involved in that argument. From a political side, it’s just drawing battle lines over social ideals, and I think that’s the wrong thing to do. I believe it’s very important for every police department to represent every member of its community. The key in law enforcement — and why you see so many responses from police leaders across the country when it comes to aiding in federal immigration enforcement — is that police believe that drives a wedge between them and the very community that they serve.

"Trust is foundational to policing. You have to have the trust of the community you serve. You have to build a relationship."

You need to be very cautious of anything that would drive a wedge between you and the community you serve. If they’re afraid that I’m going to arrest them for an immigration violation, it’s going to cause them to not report crime. And that is going to affect those people and it’s going to affect our community as a whole. That’s unacceptable to me.



I think police departments need to continue to follow the dictates of our job, which is enforcing our local laws, and enforcing our state laws. And certainly we are great partners with all of our federal agencies. And when something is significant — if you’ve got somebody that’s here illegally and they’re involved in drug distribution — then all of that might tie together. But in the day-to-day interactions for law enforcement, I think it’s really important that we not get involved in immigration enforcement.

ABLOW: What should people understand about Boise as a community and the way that your police department interacts with that community?

BONES: Being a successful police department is completely dependent on the partnership that you have with the community you serve, and that means every part of your community. You can’t do it alone; it’s absolutely impossible. Every police chief out there would echo that thought. We don’t have the resources and we don’t have the ability to affect problems by ourselves. Reaching out to those people that maybe have the least trust or least understanding of what you do is the hardest, but it’s also one of the most important things we do.

When we work together with our community groups across the board — private, public, other governmental groups — that’s what I’ve seen has made us successful here in Boise. It’s so easy to do because if you’re a police chief, all you have to do is extend an invitation and everybody comes to the table. It’s a wonderful little tool that we have: just getting people in the same room to talk. It’s an amazing, amazing way to get to a solution. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a police chief is to engage other people. Usually they have better ideas and solutions than I’m ever going to come up with. And that ability to invite people into a room and start a conversation starts a relationship, and that starts us down the path of solving the problems in the community. That’s what we’re here for.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


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A former writer and producer for Bill, Moyers & Company, and Bill Moyers Journal, Gail Ablow is currently a visiting media fellow in democracy at Carnegie Corporation of New York. Her first collaboration with the Moyers team was the documentary series On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying, followed by Earth on Edge and Kids and Chemicals. Her work has earned four Emmy nominations, a Peabody Award, and an Edward R. Murrow Award. @GailAblow

Rob Finch is an award-winning photojournalist and visual storyteller based in Portland, Oregon. As creative director at Blue Chalk Media, he directs, shoots, and edits in both the documentary and advertising worlds. Before helping start Blue Chalk, Finch was part of the team from the Oregonian recognized with the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting. @BlueChalkMedia


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