County board opts not to vote on refugee resettlement question

by Jim Lundstrom

Image: MN Dept. of Human Services

The May 26 St. Louis County Board meeting was a contrast in opposites, and it offered a close look at the deep political divide in America 2020.

On one side were the vocal majority, made up of the ill-informed, the misinformed and those just plain afraid of the big old world out there, pitted against well-intentioned progressives and Unitarians.

The issue was a “symbolic” vote on making St. Louis County a haven for refugee resettlement, an issue forced on the county and other governmental entities around the country when last September President Trump issued an executive order allowing state and local governments to decide whether to accept refugee resettlement.

When the St. Louis County Board first addressed the issue in early January, it was tabled for the May 26 meeting. Shortly after that meeting, U.S. District Judge Peter Messite ruled that Trump’s executive order “does not appear to serve the overall public interest,” putting the brakes on enforcement of the order.

At about the same time, Beltrami County voted against refugee resettlement, making it the first in the state, and possibly the nation, to take a stand on the issue.

With just three of the seven county commissioners at the Government Services Center in Virginia and the rest participating virtually from their homes, the board heard from 50 callers who had weighed in on the resettlement issue before the meeting, and they also took calls throughout the meeting.

“A lot of these are illegal aliens. That shouldn’t be tolerated,” said one man calling from the Iron Range. “A lot of them don’t come from good, moral cultures.” He then went on to describe living near a resettled Hmong family and watching in horror as the family “scooped up dogs and cats to eat.”

“I do not wish for them to be coming here,” said a man from Mountain Iron. “They can go elsewhere. We cannot afford to have them live on our taxpayer dollars.”

Mountain Iron, the “Taconite Capital of the World,” was well represented by refugee resettlement naysayers, who seemed to think “aliens,” as one caller referred to them, were waiting at the border of St. Louis County to start taking welfare and jobs from hard-working descendants of the immigrants who came here earlier, and they would start immediately flooding in if the board voted to accept them, such as this woman from Iron Mountain: “They are not keeping the law and you expect all the rest of us to keep the law. We have no employment for them.”

“It’s a disgrace,” said another female caller. “I don’t know anybody who wants them. I’ve seen them in action in Wilmar, Minn. Mothers let the children take a leak on the floor. What are they going to do here? I don’t like them being shoved down our throat. Put them in Minneapolis. If it happens, I’ll have to sell my house and move somewhere where they don’t have them.”

Or another Iron Mountain woman who said, “I heard you’re going to bring some aliens up here. Well, don’t bring them up unless they’re citizens and they have a job.”

Another woman simply said, “Illegal immigrants. Phooey!”

Some of the callers objected not to refugees themselves, but to the burden they would place on St. Louis County and its communities.

“We need to take care of our own first,” an Eveleth man said. “Our ancestors may have been immigrants, they were not refugees. There is a distinct difference.”

Yes, there is, a difference that was pointed to by several callers and several board commissioners when they finally got their chance to speak. Immigrants have usually left their homeland for a better life somewhere else. Refugees have been forced to flee their homes because of war, political violence, natural disaster and other forces they have no control over.

While many of the callers said these refugees would not be Christians, probably Muslim, several people pointed out that an overwhelming majority – 79 percent, according to Commissioner Paul McDonald – of recent refugees brought to the U.S. were indeed Christians, as if that should matter.

On the other side were callers who said St. Louis County should stand up for being a welcoming place, and that those against refugee resettlement were expressing the same sort of misinformation, rumor, racism and fear that earlier immigrants faced when they came to this country earlier in our history. Commissioner Patrick Boyle mentioned a sign he has on display in his office from the early 20th century, a Boston want ad that says “No Irish need apply.” A caller in support of resettlement read from the lumber camp writings of a man who went on to be a prominent attorney and who had nothing good to say about the backward, dirty, just-off-the-boats Swede immigrants he had to work with in the lumber camps.

A Virginia woman pointed to the “welcoming history in our country, state, and especially here on the Iron Range” where the culture is based on many different ethnicities coming to work and live.

A Hermantown man said he tried to look at the issue through his young son’s eyes, and came to the conclusion that his son’s life would be richer in a community open to refugees. “We all do better when we all do better,” he said.

“Today I speak with a heavy heart, a heart that is open and it’s breaking over the racism and hatred I have witnessed over the past five months since we started this conversation,” said Commissioner Beth Olson, who first brought the resolution before the board.

She thought this would be an easy vote since the board represents a county full of immigrants, but instead there has been, she said, “a campaign of misinformation and lies.”

Olson told her fellow commissioners that while their vote on the issue may be symbolic, it’s much bigger than symbolism or even refugees, saying the people want the vote to be taken so they “know where we stand individually and collectively.” She referred to the vote as “a referendum on what kind of county we are – open to outsiders and welcoming or scared by differences.”

Commissioner Keith Nelson acknowledged several comments that refugee resettlement doesn’t rely on local tax dollars. It does, however, rely on federal dollars, he said, and “the federal taxes come out of my back pocket.” He said he sees this whole thing as a way to bash Trump.

“It’s one more dog whistle from the Trump Administration to pander to far right support, so let’s attack ‘em,” he said.

Nelson added that he remains in office because he listens to his constituents, and they “overwhelmingly told me that they don’t agree with this. They simply do not.”
“The problem that has hit me in the heart since the beginning of this is family reunification,” said Commissioner Paul McDonald. “Just put yourself, all of you, in that position, not being able to reunite with a family member.”

McDonald also attempted to dispel some of the misinformation that callers had dragged in, such as the majority of refugees being Muslim.

“In the last few years it hasn’t been,” he said, adding that 79 percent of recent refugees were Christian.

Commissioner Patrick Boyle said all those with a fear of Muslim immigrants should know they are repeating the not-too-distant history when this country had a similar fear of Papists (Catholics).

Ultimately, the board voted not to act on the question. Instead, the board approved in a 3-4 vote an amendment from board chair Mike Jugovich to send the question back to county administration until the question of Trump’s executive order is settled in the courts. The four voting for the amendment to once again delay the question were Commissioners Jugovich, McDonald, Musolf and Nelson.