A proposed bill that would allow North Dakota cities and the governor to place a moratorium on refugee resettlement while data is collected drew several hours of public testimony, mainly in opposition. The bill generated so much discussion that now the topic will be turned into a legislative study during the 2017-18 interim.
House Bill 1427 was presented Friday at the House Government and Veterans Affairs committee meeting, where it drew a crowd of more than 150 people at the state Capitol.
The bill would allow local and state governments to halt refugee resettlement in areas that don't have the resources to handle refugees. It also would gather data on refugees and allow local and state governments to have more input on refugee resettlement.
"The purpose of my bill ... is not to ban refugee resettlement. The purpose of the bill is to put into (North Dakota Century Code) that state and local governments be consulted as per federal law, which already requires this. And that’s not happening," Rep. Chris Olson, R-West Fargo, primary sponsor of the bill.
The bill's hearing lasted four hours Friday morning, and continued that afternoon after the House floor session adjourned. At the second half of the hearing, the bill was amended into a legislative study of refugee resettlement in the state.
According to the bill, the moratorium must not exceed one year. Olson said the moratorium ability would give local and state governments "more teeth in the negotiating process," allowing governing bodies to be consulted in the refugee resettlement process and to determine their own capacities.
The bill's hearing drew opposition from several refugees and representatives from the North Dakota Catholic Conference and the American Civil Liberties Union. Those who oppose the bill said it could prevent other refugees fleeing persecution from entering the state and paint the wrong picture that refugees are a burden to their communities. Some said the bill was discriminatory by singling out refugees.
“The big elephant in the room is what’s making this public sentiment very negative toward refugees? We can’t ignore that. It’s not about money, I think, it’s about fear,” said Zahra Mohamed, who came to the United States in 2005 from Somalia.
Mohamed, who lives in Bismarck with her husband and four kids, graduated from the University of Mary in 2015.
"This country has given me opportunities that my own country won’t give me," she said.
The state's refugee resettlement agency is Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, which operates three U.S. State Department-approved sites in Fargo- West Fargo, Grand Forks and Bismarck. Last year, LSSND helped to resettle 558 people and 236 families — 38 percent of whom were children and 85 percent were reuniting with families.
According to LSSND, 70 percent of the resettlement in the state occurs in the Fargo and West Fargo area, about 20 percent in Grand Forks and 10 percent in Bismarck.
Jessica Thomasson, CEO of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, told the committee that the agency opposed the bill primarily because of the idea of a community's "absorptive capacity" as well as potential untended effects of the bill.
"I’m not questioning the intent of the bill, but, if we are to make the assumption that somehow a refugee, just because of their status as a refugee, creates a different set of costs in the broad way that’s described in this bill, that does seem to me to be crossing a line," Thomasson told the committee.
If enacted, the bill could make it difficult in the future for refugees to reunite with their families, which Hukun Abdullahi, a Somalian refugee, said was his "biggest fear."
Abdullahi came to the Fargo-Moorhead area three years ago from Kenya and met his mom after 15 years of separation. His mother came to the U.S. as a refugee.
Abdullahi said he goes to college, works and runs a nonprofit. His two youngest brothers, ages 9 and 11, are still back in Africa and are going through extensive vetting processes.
“My biggest fear is … if this bill passes, I may never have my other brothers join their mother, because, who knows, we may have a state moratorium in place by the time they are approved to come over," Abdullahi said at the hearing.
Those in support of the bill included representatives from local municipalities, who told the committee they want to be more involved in the process of refugee resettlement in the state.
“We have no involvement, the city commission. We have no partnership,” Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn told the committee. "To me, that’s alarming.”
Chad Peterson, chairman of Cass County Commission, echoed Piepkorn's comment.
“There’s no one I work with, no one I serve with, that wants to see this program end,” Peterson said. "All we want to do is figure out what’s going on, become better partners with (Lutheran Social Services) .... We want to be involved. We want to be heard.”
Thomasson said LSSND strives for "transparency and regular discussion with local stakeholders on strategies for working with refugees. The agency also holds quarterly meetings and has strong cooperative relationships" with schools, law enforcement and local and state governments.
Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, testified against HB1427.
“I think how we accept and move with refugees is really a reflection of who we are as a state. Are we truly an open community where strangers are welcomed and honored?" she said.
(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)