In a split vote, one Minnesota county says ‘yes’ to more refugees

Other counties are in watch-and-wait mode, noting a lawsuit challenging Trump order.
Somali women in Willmar enter their car on a Saturday afternoon in October, 2019. The Kandiyohi County Board, whose seat is in Willmar, voted on Dec. 3, 2019, to accept more refugees into its increasingly diverse community. Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from MPR News, a partner with Sahan Journal. We will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.

 

In a first for the state, a divided Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to accept more refugees into its increasingly diverse community.

 

The measure comes months after President Trump signed an executive order requiring state and local governments to give permission for refugee resettlement efforts to continue in their communities. It also portends the debate other county boards might be faced with as a federal deadline looms.

 

Before Tuesday’s 3-2 vote in Willmar, Minn., the county seat of Kandiyohi, some commissioners expressed confusion about the policy, as well as hesitation about the vote.

 

Trump issued the executive order in September, but county officials say they didn’t receive notice until late November and were asked to make a quick decision by Dec. 25.

 

Kandiyohi County Board Chair Roland Nissen voted against the measure, citing a lack of information.

 

“You can’t legislate people to welcome someone they don’t care to welcome, but you can do it personally,” Nissen said. “We shouldn’t judge people by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. That doesn’t mean that we can’t look at what the taxpayers are putting out for these expenses.”

 

Nissen added that he’s received dozens of messages from constituents who had strong feelings on both sides. He also mentioned a pending lawsuit filed in a Maryland federal court by resettlement agencies that challenges Trump’s executive order. If a judge halts the order, local votes on the matter could be unnecessary.

 

Others on the board said they’ve been resettling refugees for decades, and that it’s a safe way for immigrants to arrive as opposed to crossing the border illegally.

 

“I will not support a ‘no’ vote because I do not think it sends the appropriate nor the honest message to our community, our county and our country,” said Commissioner Harlan Madsen. “I don’t think I’m going to change anybody’s mind in this room if we talk through the next 20 years.”

 

Just 10 refugees were settled in Kandiyohi last fiscal year, including six ethnic Karen and four East African refugees. All were joining family already in the area.

 

Not all immigrants are first-time arrivals, therefore the executive order doesn’t apply to hundreds of immigrants who could move to the county of their choice.

 

Resettlement agencies in Minnesota have been racing to gather the consent forms from across the state. They’ve sent draft language to the two dozen counties that have accepted refugees within the past two years.

 

Maureen Warren, a vice president of Lutheran Social Service Minnesota, said she believes Kandiyohi is the first in the state to pass such a resolution. Across the border in North Dakota, Cass County — home to Fargo — passed a similar measure of support on Monday.

 

Officials in Stearns County, which includes St. Cloud, Minn. — a city that’s home to a large Somali-American population — say they’re waiting for more information from the state’s Department of Human Services before they take up the matter.

 

The order also requires governors to provide consent if they want resettlement efforts to continue in their states. According to the Washington Post, at least five states, including North Dakota, have suggested they will accept refugees.

 

Reached Tuesday, Teddy Tschann, a spokesperson for Gov. Tim Walz, said the governor would make sure Minnesota remains welcoming state to those seeking refuge.

 

The number of refugees allowed to resettle in the United States is at a historic low. President Trump set the cap for fiscal year 2020 at 18,000 — a 40 percent drop from the previous year.

 

Minnesota resettled 775 refugees in 2019, according to the DHS. The majority are from Burma and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Somali refugees totaled 67, while Ukranians made up 69.

 

The president’s order said the federal government must “be respectful” of communities that may not be able to accommodate refugee settlement.

 

Willmar has experienced tension and growing pains as longtimers began mixing with Somali refugees and their families at businesses, restaurants and schools.

 

Last month, a local group that bills itself as a patriotic Christian organization invited an anti-Islam speaker to convince attendees that Islam is a dangerous cult. Other community members responded in protest outside of his event to support immigrants in Willmar.

 

Kandiyohi County Commissioner Steve Ahmann, who voted against the consent resolution, said he wished there was more data available on the benefits of refugee resettlement. He also said he needed more time to consult with local mayors and city council members.

 

“Without that data it’s hard to make a really informed decision without looking like you’re prejudiced or biased one way or another,” he said. “You’re dealing with your emotions rather than dealing with facts, and in this case, the facts have not been presented in a way that’s given us adequate time to review it.”

 

According to a letter commissioners received from the five resettlement agencies in Minnesota, refugees contribute $227 million in state and local taxes each year.

 

MPR News reporters Kirsti Marohn and Dan Gunderson contributed to this story.

Riham Feshir is a senior reporter at MPR News covering race, class and communities. Feshir is the co-creator of 74 Seconds, an innovative podcast that covered the first-ever trial of a Minnesota police officer charged in an on-duty death. Her work on the podcast won national awards, including a Peabody, Livingston and Third Coast Best Documentary. Feshir’s work focuses on important issues related to immigration policy, race and the growing diverse population of Minnesota.

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