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Burleigh County OKs refugee resettlement after passionate testimony

Burleigh County OKs refugee resettlement after passionate testimony

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Burleigh County commissioners in a 3-2 vote on Monday gave their consent to continuing to resettle refugees in the county, culminating a week of intense public debate in Bismarck.

Commissioners Jerry Woodcox, Mark Armstrong and Kathleen Jones voted in favor; Jim Peluso and Chairman Brian Bitner voted against. Armstrong was out of town and listened to the meeting via telephone. The motion caps refugees at 25 in 2020, and Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota is required to file an annual report stating where refugees came from and the associated costs. 

The vote came after a four-hour-long meeting Monday that included testimony from dozens of community members for and against refugee resettlement.

Steven Schwab said people should not be criticized for worrying about the impacts of refugee resettlement on the community.

“When people want something, the worst thing to do is say … ‘If you don’t give us what we want, that’s racism and it’s fear,’” he said. “I believe that North Dakota and Bismarck are not, and never have been in my lifetime -- 68 years -- a racist community. They are a concerned community.”

Clara Butland, of Bismarck, noted that the state has seen a large influx of people in recent years due to the oil boom. 

“The strain that has posed on our resources … I haven’t heard the same level of complaints from people of this state,” she said.

Many refugees also spoke, including Muhammad Amiri, a Walmart manager, who moved to Bismark in 2016 after fleeing Afghanistan and Pakistan to avoid persecution against his Hazaras ethnic group.

“There are a lot of other families waiting for an approval, and all they have is hope,” he said.

The matter came before the commission after President Donald Trump issued an executive order in September allowing state and local governments to decide whether to receive or reject resettled refugees. 

Had the vote gone the other way, Burleigh County would have been the first county in the United States to block refugee resettlement, according to Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, the chief executive officer of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, of which Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota is an affiliate.

Gov. Doug Burgum last month sent a letter of consent to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to "receive resettlement refugees, in conjunction with the continued assent and cooperation of local jurisdictions in our state." Grand Forks and Cass County commissioners both recently gave Lutheran Social Services consent to continue accepting refugees in those eastern counties.

Stewartsdale resident Marty Beard during Monday night’s meeting thanked Trump for “making this meeting possible.”

“What I am against is the abuse of power from the previous administration that has let this system down and allowed refugees and immigrants into this country unvetted,” he said. “The very same immigrants who are now causing problems. The very same ideology that our soldiers are fighting against.”

Tim Purdon, who served as U.S. attorney for North Dakota from 2010-15, told commissioners that during that time his office saw no issue with refugees. Anyone raising fears of a spike in crime is “not being truthful,” he said.

“I’m basing that on statistics as well as my own experience, again as the top immigration prosecutor for the state of North Dakota over a five-year period,” he said. “I ask you to vote ‘yes’ to allow these children and families to come to our community and add to the fabric of our community.”

North Dakota is expecting to receive 18 refugees during the 2020 fiscal year, according to the U.S. Department of State's Refugee Processing Center. During the last fiscal year, 24 refugees arrived in Bismarck, according to Lutheran Social Services. In 2018, Bismarck received 22.  

Refugee resettlement in North Dakota has declined annually since fiscal year 2016, when the state received 540 refugees. 

Bitner made up his mind on how he would vote ahead of the meeting. He said he determined most people in the community were against refugee resettlement by asking community members.

He said before and during the meeting that the commission did not have enough firm information, though he said Lutheran Social Services did tell him that refugees cost North Dakota $52 million annually.

“We have some facts to deal with. We certainly don’t have enough facts to make a decision like this,” he told the crowd. “It should be embarrassing to every one of us that this thing has degenerated into some sort of name-calling and racism thing and anything else like that. We’re better than that, folks. This community does not need that divisive (expletive).”

Commissioner Kathleen Jones said before the meeting that she was "sitting on the fence" on whether to vote for or against the proposal. She said there needs to be more information about where refugees are coming from because it’s important to know "how well they are going to fit in our current society."

"Are they educated? How well do they speak the language? What are their interests and why are they coming? Are they coming from countries where there are all kinds of upheaval going on? I don't know any of that," Jones said. "Religion has nothing to do with it; it has to do with the politics of the country."

Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken spoke during the public hearing against resettling refugees. He said the county should not vote in favor without knowing the costs.

“We don’t know the numbers. We don’t have the answers. We don’t have all of the information that we need to make an informed decision,” he said.

Shirley Dykshoorn, vice president for senior and humanitarian services for Lutheran Social Services, said she doesn't know how much refugee resettlement costs taxpayers.

"You really would have to have all this information from the local or state government entities to capture a number, and it's really case-specific," she said.

Each refugee in Bismarck receives a $1,175 one-time federal grant when they arrive, according to Turdukan Tostokova, resettlement coordinator at Lutheran Social Service's Bismarck office. 

"That money we never give to clients, but we are authorized, once we know they are coming for sure, to find a secure apartment, deposit first month's rent, then we need to buy household items," Tostokova said. "We try to save their money to use towards rent because we know they will not start working right away." 

In addition, refugees receive funds through the state Department of Human Service’s Refugee Resettlement Program for eight months. A single family household receives $335 monthly, an amount that is increased for multifamily households, depending on how large they are. 

Lutheran Social Services takes refugees to Burleigh County Social Services to enroll them to receive federal SNAP, or food stamp, benefits. If a refugee family has children, the organization enrolls them in Medicaid; if not, in the Sanford Health Plan.

"They are treated as any American citizen or immigrant, or green card holder, when it comes to public assistance, because these are income-based," Tostokova said.

During fiscal 2017, there were 2,983 refugees in the state enrolled in traditional Medicaid, costing $14.4 million, according to a study by the state Legislature’s Human Services Committee. In addition, 4,295 refugees enrolled in a supplemental nutrition assistance program, costing $5.6 million.

 

Reach Andy Tsubasa Field at 701-250-8264 or andy.field@bismarcktribune.com.

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