BEMIDJI -- At dusk on Tuesday, Jan. 7, Beltrami County became the first in the state and second in the nation to not allow refugee resettlements.

The reaction on social media started soon after, with several posts from citizens and politicians appearing on multiple platforms through the night and into Wednesday.

One of the notable reactions came from Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, who posted about the subject on Facebook and Twitter.

"I was born and raised in Beltrami County, and I learned to help neighbors in need, not turn our backs on them," Winkler wrote on Facebook. "In 2019, I helped Beltrami County get additional funds from other Minnesota taxpayers to offset expenses the county could not control.

"Tonight three Beltrami County board members voted to withdraw onto their own island by denying a home to refugees," Winkler wrote. "If that is the county's position, it should be prepared to go without the state aid the rest of us provide them."

Tuesday's decision was reached in a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Richard Anderson of District 3, Craig Gaasvig of District 1 and Jim Lucachick of District 5 voting in favor of a motion to not accept resettlements. Voting no on the motion were District 2 Commissioner Reed Olson and District 4 Commissioner Tim Sumner.

The commissioners were responding to an executive order from President Trump, which enhanced state and local government involvement in refugee resettlement. Signed in September, the order will go into effect June 1.

However, resettlement affiliates and nonprofits are required to submit their placement strategies to the State Department by Jan. 31. The order by Trump allows counties interested in refugee resettlement to opt-in with official approvals.

For counties opposed to taking refugees, the order also allows local government units to either take no action, which would be interpreted as declining, or hold a formal vote such as the one taken Tuesday.

While there have been more than 100,000 individuals who've come to Minnesota through the United States Refugee Admissions Program since 1980, data shows few refugees being resettled to Beltrami County. According to the U.S. Department of State's Refugee Processing Center's website, no refugees have been resettled in Bemidji. Also, when asked Tuesday, County Administrator Kay Mack said there were no current requests for resettling refugees to the area.

In emailed comments to the Pioneer on Wednesday, District 2A Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, said he trusted the commissioners to make the best choice for their constituents.

"The citizens of Beltrami County elected their county commissioners to make decisions such as this," Grossell said. "They know their county budget situation better than anyone and I trust them to make the decision that is best for Beltrami County."

No cut in funding

In a separate comment Tuesday night, Grossell also criticized Winkler's social media posts.

"President Trump empowered counties to have a voice in the decision making process for the federal refugee resettlement program," Grossell said. "Tonight, Beltrami County exercised that option and Majority Leader Winkler responded by threatening to cut off state funding because Beltrami County didn't vote the way he wanted. This is a disturbing and arrogant reaction from metro Democrats who have no business telling our county commissioners how to vote."

In a phone call with the Pioneer on Wednesday, Winkler expanded on his comments.

"I was obviously very disappointed that the county board would take that unnecessary vote, which I think is just a symbolic effort to create division and fear for no purpose," Winkler said. "We're not going to cut off funding for Beltrami County and hurt the residents based on the misguided action of three board members. But, I think it's important to point out that county boards seek funding from other parts of the state, and simultaneously saying outsiders are not welcome in Beltrami County. I don't think that's the right thing to do."

The financial status of Beltrami County was referenced heavily at Tuesday's meeting.

Beltrami County, which has a population of 46,847, has an unemployment rate of 4% as of November, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Over the past decade, Beltrami County has regularly had a higher unemployment rate when compared to the state average.

The county also only recently reached a state of financial stability after a period of hardship that officials called a "fiscal cliff" situation. During this time, because of a sharp increase in out-of-home foster care placements, the county was having to tap into its reserves.

In a presentation given in spring 2019, commissioners learned the general fund balance could go negative in either 2022 or 2023 if increases in foster care continued. However, in the months that followed, the county received $3 million in financial relief from the state and commissioners also learned that an initiative by the Red Lake Nation to work directly with the state and federal governments on foster care, essentially taking the county out of the process, was authorized.

Additionally, for the first time since 2012, the county saw a decrease in the number of children in foster care. Despite being in a better position, though, commissioners who voted in favor of the motion said Beltrami County is still not resourceful enough financially to support a refugee population.

"We're hopefully seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, in terms of not going completely bankrupt, but that doesn't mean we can open the door to more expenses," Gaasvig told the Pioneer on Wednesday. "The show of hands I called for at the meeting was an overwhelming majority of people who saw that 'We just can't afford this in our community.'"

"It was a difficult decision for all five of us, I think, because it did come so suddenly," Anderson said. "My thought process was 'How can Beltrami County accommodate and take care of a large refugee settlement?' Last year, we were bailed out by the Minnesota Legislature so we could make payroll. My concern was also not on us financially, but the impact on refugees themselves."

Anderson told the Pioneer that because of its financial status, the county couldn't properly accommodate a high volume of refugees.

"I have a heart for immigrants and refugees. There's a great need out there," Anderson said. "They expect to be placed in an area where food, shelter and job training is supposed to be met. If they land here with our great needs already, what disappointment there would be that they'd find here. Not for a lack of warmth or people wanting to help, but because we lack the resources. Immigrants are still welcome in Beltrami County, but at a level they can be supported and nurtured."

Beltrami County Board of Commissioners, from left, Reed Olson, Richard Anderson, Craig Gaasvig, Tim Sumner and Jim Lucachick, discuss the topic of allowing resettlement of refugees into the county at a meeting on Tuesday night. (Annalise Braught | Bemidji Pioneer)
Beltrami County Board of Commissioners, from left, Reed Olson, Richard Anderson, Craig Gaasvig, Tim Sumner and Jim Lucachick, discuss the topic of allowing resettlement of refugees into the county at a meeting on Tuesday night. (Annalise Braught | Bemidji Pioneer)

While Lucachick cited financial issues as a reason for voting against the measure Tuesday, though, he listed others in communication with another local official. On Twitter, Bemidji City Council member Michael Meehlhause shared an email he sent to county officials about the upcoming vote before Tuesday's meeting.

In the email, Meehlhause cited an unlikelihood of refugees being resettled to Beltrami County and wrote "As I look at the facts, there is nothing that will change with this vote regardless of outcome. All it seems to be designed to do is to further divide us against one another."

In an emailed response, Lucachick wrote "I will vote no. Not divisive, just weighing the facts. I welcome you to show me a refugee resettlement area that is working well and prospering. I find no examples of that."

Lucachick continued in the email, "They are invasive and want little to do with our country, they want their rules put in place and remove ours. Speaking of being divisive, I see little from the city on being inclusive."

Attempts to reach Lucachick for a response Wednesday were unsuccessful.

More responses

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-MN5, wrote on Twitter after the vote, "this is deeply disheartening. Minnesotans have a history of welcoming refugees with open arms."

Omar is a refugee herself who fled with her family during Somalia's civil war in the 1990s. In 2018, she was elected to represent Minnesota's 5th Congressional District. Two years prior, she was elected to Minnesota's District 60B in the state House of Representatives.

In her statement on Twitter, Omar also said, "Now, Beltrami is giving them a clenched fist. I'm proud that my home county-Hennepin-voted overwhelmingly to continue being a home for those fleeing oppression."

When asked about the situation, Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht stated in an email "the county's action last night has created a lot of negative criticism for our community. I have received several calls and messages and City Hall has received calls and messages from people who say they are no longer going to visit or vacation here. There is a lot of misinformation on social media that seems to be fueling this fear. My experience has been that seeking understanding and making room for conversation can help."