At Bemidji town hall, Jason Lewis supports county's ban on refugees

Jason Lewis
Republican Senate candidate Jason Lewis holds a town hall meeting in Bemidji Thursday to discuss a recent county vote barring refugees from resettling in the area.
John Enger | MPR News

People in Beltrami County are still divided and angry about a county board vote barring refugees earlier this month. It’s where Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis had a public meeting Thursday evening.

The former congressman and talk show host said elected officials made the right call.

“Your county took the decision to exercise, here’s a novel idea, are you ready for this? Self-government, and say, we want to pause on refugee resettlement,” Lewis said. “The reaction from a far-away capital decided for me that I have to get up here and have your back. That’s why I’m here. I wanted to make certain that you are not alone.”

Spurred by a presidential executive order, Beltrami was the first county in Minnesota, and one of the few in the country to vote explicitly to deny refugee resettlement. Hundreds of people came out to that meeting earlier this month, with most against resettlement. Angry audience members shouted over the commissioners. The northern Minnesota county that has seen no primary refugee resettlements since the 1970s hit national news.

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Lewis said it wasn't racist to oppose resettlement. He cited a figure of $79,000 per refugee in state and local government costs. That number also was included in a 2018 article posted on the website for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The group has been designated as an anti-immigration hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

More than 100 people attended the town hall meeting.
More than 100 people attended the town hall meeting.
John Enger | MPR News

Some immigration experts have argued refugees likely pay much more in income taxes than they receive in public assistance.

Most of the 100 or so people in the audience appeared to support Lewis over Democratic incumbent Sen. Tina Smith in the November election.

One man asked whether Muslims could be prevented from running for public office.

“I would not be in favor of that. Religious affiliation can never be a test for public office,” Lewis responded.

Sherry Kloha was one of a few dozen in the room who came in support of refugees. She said Lewis “purposefully chose a very contentious, very emotional topic to rally the troops.”

Hotel owner Rich Siegert chairs the Beltrami County Republicans. He's wary of refugees, but that wasn't always the case. The church he grew up in sponsored and settled some of the area’s last refugees more than 40 years ago. He remembered a family displaced by the war in Vietnam.

“We worked with them a lot, and we found jobs for them and places for them to live. I really can’t complain, it was a really nice family,” Siegert said.

But Seigert believes refugees now are not the same as back then and should be kept out of the county. It's one reason he supports Lewis.