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New refugee family won't count toward cap; Bitner criticizes provided information

New refugee family won't count toward cap; Bitner criticizes provided information

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Residents hold signs supporting refugee resettlement during a Burleigh County Commission meeting in Bismarck on Dec. 9, 2019.

Burleigh County is the new home for a family from Ukraine, but the eight refugees who came in November don't count toward the county's cap this year of 25.

Lutheran Social Services reported to the county that the refugees came in November, the county commission announced this week. That was before December’s contentious public meeting on whether refugee resettlement should continue in the area. The meeting was prompted by an executive order from President Donald Trump that left the question up to states and counties. 

Commissioners in a 3-2 vote in December allowed refugee resettlement to continue with two conditions: Lutheran Social Services caps the number of refugees it receives this year at 25, and it provides an annual report to commissioners stating where refugees have come from and the associated costs.

Last week, the nonprofit provided an update, according to Commissioner Jerry Woodcox.

“No other arrivals or no cases are pending, so it’s pretty quiet,” said Woodcox, who voted in favor of refugee resettlement.

Commissioner Brian Bitner, who voted against refugee resettlement, on Wednesday criticized Lutheran Social Services for including information that he said wasn't appropriate in its proposal to continue resettling refugees.

In its application to the county, Lutheran Social Services included a 2017-18 study from the state Legislature's Human Services Committee that cited a report provided by New American Economy, a New York-based immigration research nonprofit, in a section on the “Benefits of Refugee Resettlement.” Despite the title, the section cited data on “New Americans” -- a term that doesn't mean just refugees.

"Except where otherwise noted, we define an immigrant as anyone born outside the country to non-U.S. citizen parents who is a resident in the United States," Nan Wu, New American Economy Deputy Director of Qualitative Research, said in an email about her group's report. "This includes naturalized citizens, green card holders, temporary visa holders, refugees, asylees, and undocumented immigrants, among others. So refugees are included when we refer to "New Americans" or immigrants in the report."

The section said “New Americans” in North Dakota paid $36.4 million in state and local taxes, $66.9 million in Social Security taxes and $16.2 million in Medicare taxes, and earned $559.6 million of income.

“The information regarding benefits of that was not information that was relative to refugees, it was information that was pertinent to foreign-born individuals,” Bitner said. “And so I (studied) the source of the information to find out it was census data that they used.”

He added: “And in the census data they were clear that it wasn’t possible to separate out any of the categories of immigration from that information. So the refugee information that was provided to us was not refugee information.”

Woodcox agreed that the data the state Legislature's Human Services Committee included in its report, which Lutheran Social Services attached in its proposal, "wasn’t appropriate."

Shirley Dykshoorn, vice president for senior and humanitarian services for Lutheran Social Services, told the Tribune her organization included the Legislature's study because there "had not been a longitudinal study about the impact of refugees to communities."

"What the communities had available to them were broader data and references so (the Human Services Committee) didn't distinguish refugee status versus other immigrants in that material that they've attached to the study," she said. 

She feels the study was appropriate to include in the Lutheran Social Services proposal. 

"Implying that there are all these costs to the community for refugees was what we were trying to address," Dykshoorn said.

When Bitner said during the December meeting that refugees cost the state $52 million, he cited the same Human Services Committee study. He added the cost of refugees enrolled in Medicaid, $14.4 million, and supplemental nutrition assistance, $5.6 million, in 2017 to the $30.7 million North Dakota spent in 2017-18 for English Learners students -- a program that includes immigrants, refugees and U.S. citizens.

Bitner told the Tribune that when he cited the English Learners statistic, he "didn't have a clear understanding of that number at that time." 

"It probably calls into question the whole thing, for all I know. Whoever provided this information provided inaccurate information based on what we know about these reports," Bitner said. "'Benefits of Refugee Resettlement,' that information is not accurate. So how do I know to trust anything ahead of it? I probably shouldn't have probably used it at all." 

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

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