By Leo Wolfson and Greg Johnson
Cowboy State Daily
A comment Wyoming state Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, made that dozens of Guatemalans were on a flight that landed at Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport in Gillette on Wednesday night has stoked the Cowboy State political rumor mill.
The comment was made during a Thursday morning discussion on a Medicaid expansion bill at the state Capitol in Cheyenne.
“I received a call this morning from my community that there was a plane that landed in Gillette last night that had almost 40 Guatemalans on that plane,” he said during a meeting of the House Revenue Committee.
Bear never used the word “refugee,” but did reference an ongoing political debate over U.S. immigration policy and “what we know about the border policy in the United States right now …”
Bear was making a point that it may be difficult to determine how many people in Wyoming would actually benefit from an expansion of Medicaid.
“It’s obviously a concern when we’re trying to determine the numbers what’s happening in our state,” Bear told Cowboy State Daily.
Bear said he received a call from a Campbell County commissioner about the group of Guatemalans, but did not know any further details about the status of the people traveling.
He said no information has been provided to the public regarding the flight manifest, which Bear said the airline would only provide if compelled by a order. Bear said he planned to meet with Gov. Mark Gordon about the issue later in the day to request him to investigate the matter.
Refugees Or Just Visitors?
While Bear didn’t say the group were refugees from Guatemala, a rumor spread quickly that refugees were landing in Wyoming.
The airport confirmed there was a commercial flight that landed in Gillette from Denver on Wednesday, but could not confirm any other information or whether the group are tourists or refugees, said county spokeswoman Leslie Perkins.
“What we know from the airport is there were no private planes that landed last night,” Perkins told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday morning.
Rusty Bell, a former Campbell County Commissioner, said he talked with the airport director, who told him that 21 Guatemalans were on the flight. He said the South Americans came to Denver on a flight from San Diego.
Bell said the airport director did not say whether the group are refugees or tourists, but they had tickets and a few different last names.
“I Would Have Known”
Bertine Bahige is a respected educator and elementary school principal in Gillette. When he was 15, Bahige came to the United States as a refugee from Democratic Republic of the Congo.
He has since been active in the Wyoming refugee community and was part of an effort to urge former Gov. Matt Mead’s administration to establish a refugee resettlement program in Wyoming, which is the only state without one.
If the Guatemalans who landed in Gillette on Wednesday are refugees, that would be news to Bahige.
“There have been no conversations about refugees in Gillette that I know of, and I would know,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “As a person who has come here as a refugee, I know I would’ve heard about that.”
A Political Issue
Campbell County Commissioner Del Shelstad said he didn’t know anything about the event, but that the conservative political bent of the county is what is likely drawing people’s concern.
Immigration and security at the Southern border has been a topic of national interest over the last five years, he said.
“Being a conservative (county) like ours, I’m not surprised people are concerned given everything that has gone on with our Southern border,” Shelstad said about how news of refugees in Gillette would go over.