Two sides to what appears to be a moot issue were presented to a committee of the Koochiching County Board Tuesday.
Passions ran high among some, requiring board Chairman Kevin Adee to raise his voice and slam his gavel to quiet some of the about 50 people who began to argue among themselves, instead of addressing the board.
At issue was whether the board would vote in support or opposition to the idea of allowing refugees to settle here.
However, commissioners are prohibited from taking a vote because a judge has temporarily blocked an executive order from President Donald Trump seeking to give local governments more discretion over refugee resettlement (See accompanying MinnPost.com story) as well as state law which prohibits official votes during committee meetings.
Prior to the court order, 23 counties had voted in favor of allowing resettlement in their jurisdictions; Beltrami County voted against it.
Kathy LaFrance, county Department of Health and Human Resources director, also attended to provide information about refugee resettlement in the state.
She noted that since 2009 no refugees had come to Koochiching County, and that in 2020 from 18,000 to 19,000 refugees would be accepted into the United States.
“I’d like to stress that people educate their selves,” she said. “Read both sides, from reputable sources with facts.”
Some attending urged commissioners to vote no, based on fears refugees would increase crime and poverty, resulting in a degredation of quality of life, and increased costs to county taxpayers who would need to help pay to beef up law enforcement, social services, and welfare staff to handle the workload.
And others who asked commissioners to vote no, said their views were not racist or biased against any kinds or groups of refugees. Instead, they said this county cannot handle the needs of its current residents, forcing the question of how would it provide for the needs of refugees, who may come needing assistance in the form of housing and jobs — needs current residents cannot fill for themselves.
Some of those who urged commissioners to vote yes to the idea of accepting refugees said it’s not likely refugees would be settled here because of federal rules about their proximity to refugee resettlement centers in the state, of which St. Cloud is the nearest to Borderland.
And while some argued a vote in favor could be symbolic, showing the welcoming attitude of the community, they said that refugees may help solve some of the community’s problems, such as bringing skills and businesses not here now; filling jobs that current residents may not want; helping to bolster the population and adding to the tax base.
For several attending, the concerns seemed to surround the potential that Muslim refugees could settle here.
“There’s good, there’s bad, a lot of them are good, unfortunately the bad ones make them really all look bad,” one man said. “But be honest... (Muslims are now owners of hotels and gas stations elsewhere in the nation and cause crime). Watch out for Muslims. They’re coming. The next thing you know they will be here and you ain’t going to like the results.”
Candance Ritch, who previously served as the county veterans service officer, said vets are not racists.
“We’ve dealt with Mexicans, Muslims, we’ve dealt with the Vietnamese. We’ve lived in their country. We know what they do. I love everybody. I am a good Christian woman. And I give everybody the benefit of the doubt, however I have lived in refugee locations.
“I can live up here and leave my door unlocked. I don’t have to worry about my granddaughters being raped or killed. I am not saying they all do that... But look at Twin Cities crime rate, Dearborn, Mich. I am not saying they all do that.”
Ritch replied to comments about each wave of refugees — Irish, Ukrainian, German — over the years have been met by Americans with fear and discrimination. And eventually were accepted.
“I am from German descent, so I am from immigration, too... We may have told the Irish (to go home) way back... It wasn’t my generation that did that... My generation is saying ‘I love my community up here and I like it the way it is, we’re safe.’”
She urged the commissioners not to vote, because she believed it would be counted as a no vote.
However, several favoring a yes vote considered the economics of it.
Peggy Vigoren said Beltrami County’s no vote has resulted in a tourism boycott after making headlines as the only county to vote no. This community depends on and spends money to increase the numbers of tourists that come to the area, she said.
In addition, she and others said refugees come to the U.S. often because of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes and fires.
“Would we say no to our neighbors across the bridge?” she asked.
LaFrance said statistics show that most refugees are not on assistance and are most often in businesses contributing to the tax rolls.
Susan Congrave, former county Public Health director, said over the past 20 years, each refugee has cost the nation $92,000, but they have on average put back $129,000 into the economy.
She pointed to the shortage of long-term care beds locally because not enough local people want to work at nursing homes.
Mary Wilson asked those attending to understand the difference between immigrants and refugees.
“(Refugees) are asking to come here. They’re not coming to change the world,” she said. “Immigrants are coming to change the world.”
Kathie Fluke said that while a few refugees may come here sometime because of family or church sponsorship, she asked commissioners to vote yes, knowing there would not probably be large groups.
Tony Blais, a veteran, married to an immigrant, noted it took his wife more than three years to obtain her immigrant visa, so she has been vetted extensively.
Blais said where refugees come from makes a difference. He said he lived and worked five years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The people from Afghanistan and Iraq do not think like you. They never will think like you,” he said.
He asked if any one in the room was Muslim, prompting Cynthia Jaksa to raise her hand and note that one does not need to have a certain color skin to be Muslim.
Blais said he was considered an infidel in those countries because he was not Muslim, and if he were to be killed in battle, the Muslim who killed him would receive great credit.
He, too, encouraged people to do research on what he believes is a religious war in those countries, and provided his phone number, saying he’d be happy to share his experiences over a cup of coffee.
“Be very cautious who you accept, and understand you have no say in who you have,” he said. “There are dangerous people out there.”
Dale Johnson wondered if refugees from Australia would come. He also said the community does not need a “black eye” because of the issue.
Jaksa said the president is using local governments to help divide the opinion on issues at the local level.
Peggy Gustafson had the final comment from the public, saying she appreciated everyone’s participation at the meeting.
“This is the freedom we have as citizens,” she said, adding however that she did not like that some attending blamed the administration.
“The administration has been accused of maligning this nation,” she said. “All truth divides. You are on one side or another. And truth will unite as well, but I don’t like when we malign our administration. We are called as citizens and Christian citizens to pray for him.”