BEMIDJI -- The Beltrami County Board meeting room was calmer and more organized Tuesday than it was two weeks ago when the subject of refugees came up, but it was no less passionate.

On Jan. 7, the Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to opt out of the United States Refugee Resettlement Program. Commissioners Craig Gaasvig, Richard Anderson and Jim Lucachick voted in favor of the motion to do so, while Tim Sumner and Reed Olson were against.

The vote took place during a meeting where about 200 people showed up. However, none of those in attendance Jan. 7 were able to speak, as county meetings have open comment periods for only subjects not on the agenda, and the refugee resettlement topic was an agenda item.

Authorized by an executive order by President Donald Trump, the vote gave states and counties the authority to opt in or out of the refugee resettlement program. To opt in, government units would have to formally vote. But for those not wanting to be involved in the program, officials could either take a formal vote like the one on Jan. 7, or take no action, which would be interpreted as declining.

Since the vote on Jan. 7, the action has become temporarily null after an injunction was issued in federal court halting President Trump's order.

Because the topic was not on the agenda at Tuesday's county meeting, 25 individuals in a crowd of about 150 were able to speak about the vote from two weeks ago, with some for and others against it.

Those who were opposed to the decision expressed displeasure with how the previous meeting was held, with some saying it was wrong for Gaasvig, who's serving as the board chair, to have the audience give a show of hands to determine who was for and against accepting refugees. Others who opposed the decision discussed how there was too much misinformation shared in the time leading up to the vote.

Several of those against the vote also shared their own personal stories of how they or their parents either immigrated to the United States, or were refugees themselves.

Those who agreed with the vote, meanwhile, reiterated the county's financial issues and rejected the notion that the decision was based on racism. Additionally, those who were in favor of the vote argued that it shouldn't have been a county agenda item at all, as the executive order allowed an opt out ability by taking no formal action.

"We're fiscally tight, and there's not enough information. Nobody in this community knows how much it costs," Phil Ehlke told the Pioneer on Tuesday. "So, we're not ready. These guys are not racist, they're just trying to do their jobs the best they can and probably didn't anticipate all of this backlash."

Ehlke, who also spoke to the board directly, said, "This whole thing is unfortunate that it happened in the first place. The vast majority of counties, especially in out-state Minnesota, are not voting on this issue."

Petra Neadeau addresses the Beltrami County Board during Tuesday’s meeting. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)
Petra Neadeau addresses the Beltrami County Board during Tuesday’s meeting. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

The majority of those who approached the commissioners Tuesday, though, were against the Jan. 7 vote. Jean Christensen was one of them.

In the mid-1980s, Christensen worked with Vietnamese teenagers who had been in refugee camps through Lutheran Social Services Minnesota and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.

"I would help them go to school, learn English, become part of the culture and society, and eventually go to college or a trade school," Christensen told the Pioneer after the meeting. "I was very saddened to hear that the young refugee children that I worked with so many years ago might not have been welcome in this community at this time, which is not how they were received then."

Another local resident speaking Tuesday was Colleen Bakken, who argued for the decision to be reversed.

"Compassion. This is the energy that gives courage, wisdom, fortitude and direction to make decisions that will serve this generation, but more importantly, generations to come. If your decisions are made without compassion, what truly is left?" Bakken said to the board. "Compassionate communities can bring the best people together, working to solve any of the other issues. I'm asking you to correct your decision. To do what it takes to set our community's course back on track. We all make mistakes, make this mistake right."

Ernest Joseph Oppegaard-Peltier III, who moved to Bemidji from Grand Forks in 2018, was another resident who spoke Tuesday, and was also one of those in the crowd holding a sign in support of refugees.

"I'm especially proud of the folks who showed up today," Oppegaard-Peltier III said. "It seemed like the majority tonight were in favor of allowing refugees to resettle in the area."