There are wild rumors going around about new residents in the town of California, Pennsylvania — and conservative media is helping spread the fire.
About 40 Roma refugees, who fled persecution in their native Bucharest, have resettled over the past few months in the city of California. Their presence has caused an uproar among some vocal local residents who complain about their lack of assimilation to American culture and have spread rumors about their hygienic standards, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported.
The Roma immigrants — who are part of a stateless ethnic minority that immigrated from Romania and has lived in Europe for centuries — currently live in a local housing development in the city of California. Many of these individuals are family members. Some wear ankle monitors, a flight-mitigation tool that’s part of an U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency Alternative to Detention (ATD) program used to ensure people show up for their court hearings and final orders of removal.
Currently there are 97 ATD participants in the city of California, an ICE official told ThinkProgress on Thursday.
During a council municipal meeting last week, 150 residents showed up, many of whom complained that the newcomers throw trash, park their cars in yards, disregard traffic rules, and “are disruptive in markets.” Some also complained about seeing immigrants cut off chicken heads and that children have been “defecating in public,” according to the Post Gazette.
“This is not the same scenario as our grandparents. They didn’t come here to raise havoc.”
“We’re a very diverse town, we’re very open, but they aren’t assimilating to our laws,” Pam Duricic, a California resident told the Post Gazette. “We are understanding that these are immigrants. But this is not the same scenario as our grandparents. They didn’t come here to raise havoc.”
Other residents have told Vito Dentino, who owns a real estate property firm that rents out apartments to the immigrants, that they found the refugees to be “pleasant but unaware of American culture and customs.”
“I think it’s really blown a lot out of proportion,” Dentino said, according to the Tribune-Review. “They’re not violent. … Their frustration is they can’t speak English, and our frustration is we can’t speak Romanian.”
Yet the most outrageous rumors about the Roma immigrants have persisted.
Nearly 1,2000 people have signed onto a petition called “End Housing of Illegal Immigrants in California,” which in part argued that the government is paying “local figures” to “house illegal immigrants.” (Refugees, for whatever it’s worth, are not undocumented. In fact, they are very documented. Before they are allowed to step foot in the United States, they have to undergo a rigorous vetting process by various government agencies overseas.)
“These illegal immigrants are a public nuisance and have endangered the welfare of our residents,” the petition reads. Signatories claimed that their town was being “treated like the 3rd world, like where they came frome” or that “they took our jobs!” One person wrote that he wants to ride his bike down the street “without having to dodge all these immigrants. THE STREETS ARE FLOODED.” Many others were concerned about public safety.
At the municipal meeting, council members and the police chief complained that they weren’t given any warning by the federal government about the refugees’ arrival. But they admitted that there has yet to be any “instances of violence or aggression,” the Post Gazette reported. Officials also noted that “the immigrants involved in minor infractions have been duly cited and paid their fines.”
According to ICE, individuals who are eligible for release under ATD are the ones who make the decision on where to live, not its agency.
The agency “does not place ATD participants in specific jurisdictions,” an ICE official, who asked to speak on background, told ThinkProgress over email. “Those individuals determined by ICE to be eligible for release under ATD make the decision on where they will reside. There are Alternative to Detention (ATD) program participants living in California, Pa. ICE catalogues and monitors the residence the ATD participant identifies. Trained ATD officers make a determination on the most appropriate level of case management and technology assignment, while considering a multitude of factors.”
Conservative publications like Fox News and The Blaze have aggressively seized onto the fear and confusion surrounding these immigrants, painting them as uncouth individuals who pee in public and behead chickens.
"Gypsies" are settled in a small Pennsylvania town… and locals complain of them going to toilet in the street and beheading chickens. pic.twitter.com/YFpe1mbW1d
— Tucker Carlson (@TuckerCarlson) July 18, 2017
Carlson, in particular, wanted to zero in on the issue of public defecation during a segment on his show on Monday night.
“There are a lot of news stories around the UK and here where groups of Roma settle in a new community and defecate in the playgrounds or sidewalks or on their front steps,” Carlson grumbled to an amused guest of Roma-American origin. “That seems to me a hostile act, basically what you’re saying is — these are places with indoor plumbing options — when you do that, you’re saying ‘we reject you and your morales.’ What’s that about?”
California residents may not like their new neighbors, but they shouldn’t blame a lack of assimilation. In the case of the public defecations Carlson mentions, the Post Gazette reports that the instances happened with children. And while poultry beheadings are probably a gross thing to watch — as one perhaps fondly recalls from a 2008 televised interview with former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin when several turkeys were decapitated as she spoke — what exactly is different between what these immigrants are doing to cook their chickens and that of the habits of nine out of ten chicken-consuming Americans?
This isn’t the first time wild rumors have spread about refugees. Exaggerated claims or false stories of dangerous refugees and immigrants are peddled in large part thanks to conservative outlets like Fox News and the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
In April, the CEO of the yogurt company Chobani, who makes it a point to hire refugees, sued Jones for perpetuating a fake news story with the headline “Idaho Yogurt Maker Caught Importing Migrant Rapists” that linked the company’s CEO to a sexual assault case in Twin Falls, Idaho.
That Twin Falls story became a hyper-sensationalized, national scandal when two refugee children sexually assaulted another child and filmed the incident. The boys were prosecuted and the case details are sealed. Yet thanks to Breitbart News, the case quickly devolved into a plot about Muslims who gang-raped a girl at knifepoint. The Breitbart reporter who filed reports from the town kept getting key details of the case wrong.
“That was the scariest part — that he may have actually believed what he was saying was true.”
“When you would talk to him, in his mind, everything he was printing was the truth,” Greg Lanting, a city councilman and former mayor, told The Spokesman-Review. “That was the scariest part — that he may have actually believed what he was saying was true.”
The fake news stories about refugees abound. Abroad, Russian news outlets reported a fake news story last year about a 13-year-old Russian-German girl who was reportedly raped by men of Middle Eastern or North African descent in Germany. That story garnered protests from Russian-Germans. But even when the police debunked the claim, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov, continued to use it for political purposes. In Germany, daily paper Bild apologized after publishing an erroneous article about a “mob” of Arab men who sexually assaulted women on New Year’s Eve in Germany. Police failed to find evidence that the assault took place.
The fake stories have real impacts. Refugees arriving in Germany last year were met with a mob of people shouting “go home.” In 2014, when Central American families fleeing violence and death were being transported by bus to the town of Murrieta, California, demonstrators refused to let the buses through, shouting at small children, “nobody wants you.”
Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that these are “Roma refugees” instead of “Romanian refugees” to better clarify the history of the Roma people.
Update: This post has been updated to include statements made by an ICE official on Thursday.