BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Several church leaders are urging a North Dakota county not to be the nation’s first to refuse new refugees since President Donald Trump ordered that states and counties should have the power to do so.
The Burleigh County Commission was scheduled to vote Monday evening, a week after a vote was postponed when the audience overflowed the county’s usual meeting space. If commissioners vote no, refugee resettlement groups say they believe Burleigh — home to about 95,000 people and the capital city of Bismarck — would be the first local government to do since Trump’s executive order in September.
“Refugee resettlement is not only the right thing to do, but it is good for Burleigh County and North Dakota,” Bishop David Kagan, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bismarck, wrote in a letter to commissioners. The diocese, which covers the western portion of the state, serves some 62,000 Catholics.
Burleigh County doesn’t receive many refugees — just 24 in fiscal 2019, after 22 the year before — but interest in the vote has been intense. Monday’s meeting was shifted to Horizon Middle School cafeteria, capable of holding about 450 people, and immigrant and refugee advocacy groups were encouraging people to turn out in support of refugee resettlement.
Chairman Brian Bitner said at least a dozen church leaders wrote in support of the resettlement program, part of an outpouring of public comment that Bitner last week said was running decisively against any new refugees. Bitner declined to predict which way the vote would go, but said he planned to vote against accepting new refugees.
“In my own mind, we would basically be writing a blank check, and somebody in Washington, D.C. or elsewhere would make a decision on how many people would come to Burleigh County and we’d have to respond,” Bitner said. “And that’s simply not a good way to govern.”
Bitner and others, including Republican state Rep. Rick Becker and Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken, cited lack of control and the potential new costs of supporting refugees. The county doesn’t track such costs.
Commissioner Mark Armstrong said he planned to vote in favor of continuing to accept refugees.
“There is room in the ‘Burleigh County Inn,’” Armstrong said in a letter posted to his Facebook page. “I support any motion to consent to allow this decades-old program of allowing refugees in our community to continue.”
Republican Gov. Doug Burgum said last month that North Dakota would continue accepting refugees where local jurisdictions agreed, and his spokesman said the governor saw it as a local decision.
Soon after, Cass and Grand Forks counties, which are home to the state’s largest city, Fargo, and third-largest city, Grand Forks, respectively, declared they would continue taking refugees. Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said refugees were needed to boost the city’s economy, and that 90% were fully employed within three months of resettling in his city.
Shirley Dykshoorn, a vice president for Lutheran Social Services, which handles all of North Dakota’s refugee resettlement cases, said her agency used to handle about 400 cases per year, but that number dropped to 124 in fiscal 2019, which ended in September.
The program has been in existence in North Dakota since 1948.
The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which works with Lutheran Social Services, is one of three national organizations suing to block Trump’s executive order . President and chief executive Krish O’Mara Vignarajah said her organization is aware of no other local government that has voted to reject refugees.