Beltrami Co. becomes first in state to reject refugee resettlement

A presidential executive order has prompted county boards across the country to weigh whether they’ll allow refugees to be resettled within their borders.

People stand in a room
The Beltrami County Board room was packed with locals Tuesday evening. Most came out to ask the commissioners to vote against the possibility of refugees resettling in the area.
John Enger | MPR News

Updated: Jan. 8, 8:01 a.m.

The Beltrami County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday night to prohibit refugees from resettling in the area — making it the first county in the state, and possibly among the first the nation, to expressly prohibit resettlement.

Only two of the county’s five commissioners voted to allow refugees.

Spurred by a presidential executive order, county boards across the state met Tuesday to consider whether they should allow refugees to be resettled within their borders this year.

Some rural counties in southwestern Minnesota gave their consent unanimously, while places like St. Louis County, which includes Duluth, and Stearns County, which includes St. Cloud, tabled the issue without taking a definitive vote.

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Beltrami Co. vote mostly symbolic

For its part, the Beltrami County board could have achieved the same result as it did Tuesday night without voting on the executive order. Counties are required to opt in to refugee resettlement. Not voting at all would have been interpreted by the federal government the same as an explicit “no” vote, and wouldn’t have attracted as much attention.

Commissioner Reed Olson said he brought the issue before the board because “it would have been cowardly” to let it pass without taking a stand.

"This was much better. We got to do a roll call vote. So you got to see where people stand,” he said. “Otherwise it just would have said Beltrami County is opposed to resettlement, or whatever. This way I will always be on the record as having voted my conscience."

Olson was joined by Commissioner Tim Sumner in voting to allow refugee resettlement in the county. Commissioners Craig Gaasvig, Richard Anderson and Jim Lucachick all voted against consent.

"With the current state of affairs in our county, I don’t think it’s prudent to bring refugees to our county, when we need to take care of all of the issues, all of the folks that we need to take care of,” Lucachick said.

The county board’s meeting room in downtown Bemidji was packed Tuesday night. People lined the walls and spilled into the hallway. Most in the crowd appeared to be opposed to refugees: when board chair Gaasvig asked the crowd for a show of hands of those opposed to consent, most of the hands in the room went up.

Several people in attendance were vocal in favor of accepting refugees. But when commissioners said they would not hold public comment at the meeting, attendees on both sides of the issue were angry when they couldn't speak.

According to statistics from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, no primary refugees have been resettled in Beltrami County in the past five years. Now, Beltrami will not be considered as a possible new home for refugees. In all likelihood, Olson said, the county wouldn’t have been considered, even if it had voted to allow refugees.

“The federal government usually tries to place refugees in cities where there is already a refugee community,” he said, “where there is infrastructure in place to help that community.”

And because Beltrami has not taken in refugees in recent years, the Tuesday vote was largely symbolic, Olson said.

He had another reason to force the vote. He said racial tensions and fear run deep in Beltrami County, but people don’t talk about it. Now, he says, they’ll have to.

"Racism in Bemidji is alive and well. Institutional racism and just social racism is alive and well in this community,” he said. “And they will tell you that they are good Christians and they will tell you that they are good people and that they care about people, but they are succumbing to hate."

Mike Rasch disagrees. The Beltrami County retiree came to the meeting with a sheaf of the county’s public budget documents. He said Beltrami is too poor to help refugees.

"I was here because I couldn’t run my household the way we run our state and government,” he said. “If we could afford to have people come here and make their lives better, hey, I’m all for it. But we can’t."

Counties wrestle with resettlement question

President Trump issued an executive order in September requiring states and counties to explicitly approve refugee resettlement starting this summer. State officials say counties will have until June to offer their consent. But agencies that help refugees resettle in Minnesota must submit their applications to the federal government by Jan. 21.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison joined at least a dozen attorneys general in supporting a lawsuit filed by refugee resettlement groups challenging the president's order. They argue that it contradicts federal law and is unconstitutional. Oral arguments in that case are scheduled to begin Wednesday in federal court in Maryland.

Refugee resettlement agencies have asked the 25 Minnesota counties where refugees have resettled in the past five years to confirm they support resettlement within their borders.

As of Tuesday evening, at least 13 of those counties have voted to continue to accept refugees. They include metro Hennepin County, the state’s most populous, and rural counties like Murray, Blue Earth and Nobles in southern Minnesota.

Several of the 25 counties, including Ramsey County, have not yet taken any action on the issue. Three counties have delayed or scheduled hearings in the coming weeks or months.

While no single entity is tracking resettlement votes across all of Minnesota’s 87 counties, it appears that, until the Beltrami vote Tuesday night, no county in the state had yet voted to ban refugee resettlement within its borders.

The Associated Press reported early Tuesday that refugee resettlement groups said they believed no local governments in the country had voted for a total ban on refugee resettlement, though The (Lynchburg, Va.) News & Advance reported that Appomattox County in Virginia “passed a resolution expressing its intent to refuse becoming a refugee sanctuary” in December.

In St. Louis and Stearns counties Tuesday, commissioners tabled the refugee resettlement votes. Commissioners in Stearns said they expected the issue to come up at a later meeting this month. Their counterparts in in St. Louis County delayed the proposal until the end of May, shortly before the executive order is set to go into effect.

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson cast the county board’s only vote against continuing to allow refugees to be resettled there Tuesday. He said he was concerned about the cost to the county, where more than 1,300 refugees have resettled in the past five years.

"To me, it's really important that we have that information before offering essentially a blanket ‘yes’ to this,” he said.

Commissioner Jan Callison said giving people refuge was about more than the economic costs or gains.

“It is that this is the right thing to do,” Callison said. “It is consistent with our history in Hennepin County and the state of Minnesota. And I'm pleased to have a chance to vote for it."

In Stearns County on Tuesday, some board members expressed confusion about the impact of approving continued refugee resettlement — and the timeline they were given in which to make a decision. Twenty-two refugees were resettled in Stearns County in 2019 — and more than 600 refugees have resettled there since October 2015.

Stearns County Commissioner Leigh Lenzmeier said he was concerned that the county giving its consent to continue resettlement might interfere with existing county programs, and said he’d oppose the issue if he’d had to cast his vote Tuesday.

“I want to explore this more. I think we all got a ton of questions,” Lenzmeier said, although he didn’t allow a presenter from the state Department of Human Services who oversees refugee resettlement to answer questions.

Stearns County Commissioner Joe Perske said board members will always want more information, but that refugee resettlement is an issue that impacts people’s lives, and said he’d support the proposal even if it risked his seat.

“I’m very disheartened that we have this executive order, because it only pins us all against each other, rather than bringing us together,” Perske said.

Gov. Walz: ‘Inn is not full in Minnesota’

States are also required to respond to Trump’s executive order in order to allow refugee resettlement. Gov. Tim Walz last month approved continued refugee resettlement in Minnesota.

“Refugees strengthen our communities,” the governor wrote in a letter released by his office to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Walz added later, “The inn is not full in Minnesota.”

The number of refugees who resettled annually in Minnesota dropped by roughly two-thirds between 2016 and last year, when just 848 refugees were resettled in the state.

The state Department of Human Services, which helps coordinate refugee resettlement efforts, says the Jan. 21 deadline for social service agencies to declare whether they’ll take on more refugees this year will help determine which groups will receive funding to assist refugees starting this summer.

But counties will be able to give consent for refugees to be resettled within their borders until the president’s order goes into effect in June. If they don’t officially decline or consent by the June deadline, counties will be considered a “no” vote for accepting refugee resettlement.

MPR News reporter Brandt Williams contributed to this report.