BEMIDJI -- With applause from a loud, passionate crowd Beltrami County on Tuesday, Jan. 7, became the first local government unit in Minnesota to refuse refugee resettlements.
In a 3-2 vote, the county's Board of Commissioners chose to opt out of accepting refugee resettlements. The decision comes months after President Donald Trump signed an executive order enhancing state and local involvement in refugee resettlements. 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.”
While the order doesn't take effect until June, though, resettlement affiliates and nonprofits are required to submit their placement strategies to the State Department by Jan. 31. Because of the short timeline, District 1 Commissioner Craig Gaasvig said organizing a public hearing wouldn't be feasible, and as a result, the crowd of at least 200 people weren't able to comment Tuesday at the meeting in Bemidji.
"It's unfortunately the situation we've been placed in with the issue being brought up this late in the game," Gaasvig said. "Because of the timeline involved, it was chosen to be added to the agenda."
While no official comment period was held, the standing room only crowd extending out into the lobby of the County Administration Building did make itself heard at various times in the meeting. Additionally, when asked by Gaasvig for a show of hands on how many were opposed to accepting refugee resettlements, a clear majority of the crowd raised their hands. More than 200 people attended the meeting.
The county's recorded vote was one of two ways for local governments to opt-out of accepting refugee resettlements, as government units could also take no action, which would be interpreted as declining. Under the executive order, counties must vote to opt-in to accept refugees.
District 2 Commissioner Reed Olson said he learned about the subject at the Association of Minnesota Counties' annual conference.
"That's when I found out non-action is an action in itself," Olson said. "Non-action is interpreted as a 'no' vote. I said 'We need to have a vote on this.' I don't want my vote to be assumed by the State Department.
"This is not my idea, this is an executive order from the President of the United States, that all 3,000 and some counties need to respond," Olson said.
"As far as I'm concerned, I have appreciated the members of my district who've called me, texted me and informed me of their feelings," District 3 Commissioner Richard Anderson said. "I would make a motion that we do not do this."
The motion, effectively opting out of accepting refugee resettlements, was approved with Anderson, Gaasvig and Jim Lucachick voting in favor. Voting against were Olson and District 4 Commissioner Tim Sumner.
In his remarks, Lucachick said his decision was based on the county's financial status.
"As a representative of my part of the county, and considering the current state of affairs in our county, I don't feel it's prudent to bring refugees to our county," Lucachick said. "When we need to take care of all the issues we have now."
"If you're not a Native American from this area, we all have origin stories," said Sumner, a member of the Red Lake Nation. "I think most of the people here today are re-settlers. It just seems un-American to me to say that 'You're not welcome.'"
The refugee subject has been the talk of the area for the past few days. While it wasn't on the agenda Monday for Bemidji's City Council meeting, City Hall was still packed with individuals expressing concern over the matter.
Earlier Tuesday, the St. Louis County Board voted 4-3 to delay its response to refugee resettlement until May after two-and-a-half hours of testimony in Duluth.
Counties to have approved accepting refugees after the executive order takes effect include Blue Earth, Kandiyohi and Nicollet. According to the Associated Press, the nation’s first county to ban refugee resettlement was Appomattox County, Va., where commissioners voted 4-1 on Dec. 17 to deny consent to resettlement.
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.
When asked about any current requests for refugee resettlements in Beltrami County, which has a population of 46,847, administrator Kay Mack said there weren't any.
According to data on the U.S. Department of State's Refugee Processing Center's website, no refugees have been resettled in Bemidji.