Willmar keeps the refugee door open despite concerns

The city's fast-growing immigrant communites are creating opportunities and tensions.

Deka Ahmed
Deka Ahmed resettled in Arizona as a refugee in 2009 and moved to Willmar, Minn., to join others in a growing Somali community.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Deka Ahmed fled civil war-torn Somalia, first to Kenya and then to Arizona in 2009. Willmar, though, is where she wanted to be — a place that welcomed refugees like her and held the promise of a job and a new life.

"There are a lot of Somali people in Willmar that I thought would be helpful,” she said recently through an interpreter. “Neighbors that were from a refugee camp that lived in Willmar — they’re here."

A city that once seemed an unlikely spot in the country for such a fresh start is now a vital destination for Somali immigrants, joining a Latino population that's called west-central Minnesota home for decades. People of color now make up about one-third of Willmar’s population of 20,000.

That’s brought opportunities and tensions. Unlike many of its neighbors, Kandiyohi County is growing, thanks to refugees. But it’s also brought pushback from people who believe the refugee settlement has come too fast or who don’t want refugees at all.

President Trump pressed the issue this fall with an executive order directing governors and county officials to send in their consent for refugee resettlement by Wednesday if they want to continue accepting refugees.

Kandiyohi County became the first county in Minnesota to say yes to continuing to accept refugees, but it came on a 3-2 vote, signaling that deep divisions remain over the acceptance of refugees and their integration into the fabric of daily life.

Despite the rising numbers of Somalis, there remains little contact between the newcomers and some white residents, who often seem uncomfortable with the changing demographic, said Jessica Rohloff, an immigration advocate who grew up in Willmar.

"The only thing they rely on is really scary stuff that they see on TV,” she said of some residents. “And if the only thing I thought about Islam had to do with terrorism, I’d be pretty scared all the time, too. But I have had more experiences than that."

Immigration advocates contend that racial bias does play a role in how local governments view non-European immigrants.

Rollie Nissen, chair of the Kandiyohi County board and one of two commissioners who voted against the resolution on refugee resettlement, counters that many in the city simply want a pause on refugees but can’t say that for fear of being labeled racist.

In a county conference room, Nissen picked up a stack of emails and began reading from some that echoed concerns about the costs of refugee resettlement: “All our social service institutions are already overburdened,” said one. “We need to take care of the existing citizens first,” read another. “Communities have no control over the inflow of refugees, yet they must share the cost of supporting them…”

People didn’t want to vote “no forever” on refugees “but to take a pause,” said Nissen, 70, a retired shoe store manager. “Delay the vote to allow more time for input."

Nationwide, no governor has yet declined to accept refugees. The United States Department of State has received more than 30 letters of consent.

Earlier this month, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz sent his letter consenting to continued refugee resettlement and chastising Trump over the executive order. With a nod toward Christmas, Walz added, “The inn is not full in Minnesota.” Olmsted County officials also have formally consented.

The order is now the target of a lawsuit by resettlement agencies. This month, a dozen state attorneys general, including Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced their support of that lawsuit.

With her new baby boy and a toddler, Ahmed is not focused on the debate over refugees in Minnesota. Her family has lived in the same refugee camp for 30 years and she’s struggled to reunite with them. It took a lot to get here, but now there is some stability.

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