Conservative County In Minnesota Votes To Bar Refugees

Jan 10, 2020
Originally published on January 10, 2020 7:59 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Beltrami County, Minn., is one of the first in the country to prohibit refugee resettlement. John Enger of Minnesota Public Radio has been asking why.

JOHN ENGER, BYLINE: Earlier this week, the Beltrami County Board Room was packed. Board chairman Craig Gaasvig asked the assembled their position on refugees.

CRAIG GAASVIG: Can I see a show of hands of everybody that is opposed to the resettlement subject?

ENGER: Almost everyone raised their hands - no to refugees.

GAASVIG: Thank you very much. I think that is a pretty sounding statement right there.

ENGER: Last September, President Trump issued an executive order requiring state and local governments to explicitly approve refugee resettlement. Many are making that decision this week. More than a dozen counties in Minnesota voted to expand their existing refugee communities, but not Beltrami County, even though it hasn't taken in refugees in at least five years and has no refugee community.

MIKE RASCH: We're on a cliff. We can't even support the people we have. So don't even go there.

ENGER: That's Mike Rasch shouting over the proceedings. His opinion appears to be a majority one in Beltrami, one of the poorest counties in the state. He's convinced refugees would pour into his town. Commissioner Reed Olson, who later voted to welcome refugees, tried to clear things up.

REED OLSON: The chances of anyone coming to Bemidji are very slim. And it surely wouldn't be hundreds; it would probably be four.

ENGER: In the days before the vote, debate and misinformation erupted on social media. A local pastor sent out mass text messages claiming, quote, "hundreds of Muslims were coming to Beltrami County." Posts on Facebook said the government planned to bring 15,000 Syrian refugees to northern Minnesota. One rumor was oddly detailed and pervasive - not only were there 2,500 Syrian refugees said to be moving to Beltrami County, they're moving to a 500-unit apartment complex to be built by a specific contractor, on top of a specific trailer park. The contractor and trailer park owner declined to be interviewed but called the rumors completely made up.

Most of the incendiary Facebook posts have been deleted, and those who shared them won't talk on the record. Still, the rumors spread fear. The board voted 3-2 to prohibit future refugee resettlement, to huge applause.

(APPLAUSE)

ENGER: The move comes just a month after another small Minnesota community made the opposite decision. Kandiyohi County, 200 miles south of Beltrami, already has a refugee community, and leaders there voted to welcome more refugees. Olson says that should embarrass his county's leaders.

OLSON: That institutional racism and just social racism is alive and well in this community. And they all tell you that they're good Christians, and they all tell you that they are good people and that they care about people, but they are succumbing to hate.

ENGER: In the end, the whole process was largely an exercise in futility because the board could have just ignored the issue, and the federal government would have automatically prohibited resettlement. But Reed Olson forced a vote because he wanted to expose what he sees as deep-seated prejudice.

OLSON: We got to do a roll-call vote so you got to see where people stand, so this way I will always be on the record as having voted my conscience.

ENGER: As for President Trump's executive order, its constitutionality is being challenged in a federal court in Maryland.

For NPR News, I'm John Enger.

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