BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji City Council Chamber was flooded with residents Monday, with many of them there to express concerns on potential changes to local refugee policies.
However, the refugee issue wasn't included on the council's agenda, as the matter is a Beltrami County issue that is scheduled to be discussed by commissioners at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 7.
However, at Monday's City Council meeting, during the open time for citizens to speak on a subject not on the agenda, several individuals did make themselves heard.
Those residents voiced concerns and opposition to the potential for Beltrami County to continue to accept refugees, with some specifically mentioning the county's strained financial status and the ability of refugees to assimilate.
"The problem with moving refugees to certain areas is that certain refugees don't assimilate well in different areas," said Jason LaValley, a Bemidji resident and business owner. "I've witnessed it in different areas near our region, and it's been conflict. Crime rates have raised. I think it's going to change our culture. I don't have a problem with folks from other areas, but if you move in 2,000 of them, you're going to have problems."
At its meeting Tuesday, the County Board of Commissioners has an agenda item based on an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in September. The order, set to take effect June 1, 2020, enhances state and county involvement in continuing refugee resettlement. The order says the federal government “should resettle refugees only in those jurisdictions in which both the State and local governments have consented to receive refugees.”
According to county documents, while the order will take effect in June, resettlement affiliates and nonprofits are required to submit their placement strategies to the U.S. State Department by Jan. 31. If resettlement plans do include Beltrami County, the Association of Minnesota Counties will seek the board's approval, but currently, there is no request for Beltrami County. Documents state that by taking no action, the county would essentially be declining any additional refugee resettlement.
Following the period for public comment at Monday's City Council meeting, Mayor Rita Albrecht said the city had no plans regarding the refugee subject.
"There's been no measure by me, any council member, the city, or anyone in this community that I know of, except for those putting the message out there, that we would be entertaining any idea of holding refugees or opening any settlement," Albrecht said.
According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, refugees are classified as "people who have been forced to flee their home countries due to violence or persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or memberships in a particular social group." Since 1980, more than 100,000 individuals have come to Minnesota through the United States Refugee Admissions Program.
Before the holidays, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz criticized Trump's order. “As the Holiday Season approaches, we are reminded of the importance of welcoming all who seek shelter. The inn is not full in Minnesota,” the DFL governor wrote in a letter to Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
Several counties in Minnesota already have tackled the issue. Kandiyohi, Blue Earth and Nicollet counties all have voted in recent weeks in favor of continuing to accept refugees.
Christopher Magan of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this report.