Phillips: Refugee resettlement order misses mark

David Phillips
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President Donald Trump has said the reason he issued an executive order in September requiring local units of government to opt in or out of potential refugee resettlement is because local people should decide what is best for their communities. Critics, though, feel that Trump, who feeds on division, wants to bring the national culture clashes down to the local level.

Whether the reason is to reduce refugee settlement or create division, the executive order isn’t changing much as most local governments, including Fillmore County, which supported Trump in the last election, are saying yes to the option of refugee resettlement in their communities. In Fillmore County, which opted into the refugee resettlement program in a vote last week, the only county commissioner to vote against the measure objected to the politicization of the issue, not refugee settlement.

Prior to the presidential order, refugee resettlement wasn’t a burning issue on the agenda of local government units in Minnesota. Refugee resettlement hadn’t even occurred in 43 Minnesota counties, including Fillmore, during the past decade and the prospect of it happening now is remote as the administration has drastically reduced the number of refugees allowed into the program.

Since Trump forced the issue onto local governments, 23 Minnesota counties, as of Jan. 16, have said yes to refugee resettlement and just one — Beltrami County in northern Minnesota — said no.

Beltrami County commissioners voted 3-2 Jan. 7 to deny consent to refugee resettlement. The county is one of the 43 that have had no people locate in the county through the refugee resettlement program in the past decade.

A review by Minnesota Public Radio showed false information about the issue had circulated on social media, in text messages and in flyers mailed to some county residents. Some of it incorrectly claimed Muslim refugees would move to the county and drain public resources, despite the lack of any plans for refugee resettlement in the county. The inflammatory falsehoods drew a large contingent to the County Board meeting when the decision was made.

In Fillmore County, by contrast, a small, but passionate, group of supporters, many of them faith leaders, asked the commissioners to remain open to refugees that may be placed in the county. Preston resident Nancy Bratrud told the commissioners during their meeting last week when they took the vote that Americans have a history of “ethical standards” to accept refugees.

Mitch Lentz, the only commissioner to vote against the measure, stated that the doors to Fillmore County should remain open, but “it’s a political process that’s uncalled for. I don’t need this resolution if I want to welcome refugees into my home.”

No members of the public asked the commissioners to deny refugee resettlement during the County Board meeting when the decision was made. There was no organized opposition beforehand and no misleading information has been circulated specifically in Fillmore County.

Although Trump has blurred the issue with claims that refugees are forced on unsuspecting communities by the federal government and his supporters tie this issue into illegal immigration, the resettlement process is an orderly one involving people who have been forced to flee their home countries because of violence or persecution based on religion, race, nationality or political opinion.

People selected to resettle through the Refugee Admissions Program, administered by the U.S. Department of State, have legal, permanent status in the United States, are authorized to work immediately and are placed on a pathway to citizenship in five years. Resettlement refugees undergo an extreme screening and vetting process with the State Department and Homeland Security.

According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, the resettlement itself is done through volunteer agencies, such as Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota and Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota.

In an open letter first published Dec. 24 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Archbishop Bernard Hebda, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and bishops of Crookston, St. Cloud, New Ulm and Winona-Rochester, as well as six Lutheran bishops, reminded people that everyone is created in the image and likeness of God and imbued with a sacred dignity that must be protected.

“This is especially true when it comes to the poor and vulnerable,” the bishops wrote. “We are saddened that as Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ — who himself experienced life as a refugee when his family fled to Egypt — our nation may be creating even more hardships for vulnerable refugee families.”

Trump’s executive order “seems to unnecessarily politicize what has been a humanitarian program rooted in our nation’s long history of resettling families fleeing from life-threatening dangers,” the bishops wrote. “We are also troubled by the decision to set a limit of 18,000 refugees in 2020, the lowest in 40 years.”

Although several counties, including Houston, haven’t had a vote on the executive order, they may not have to go through with the process now. A federal judge on Wednesday, Jan. 15, the day after Fillmore County commissioners voted, temporarily suspended the policy, concluding it would likely be found illegal.

Still, the initial votes of local units of government show that the executive order was never needed since it has been a rare occurrence when local government denied the possibility of refugee resettlement in their jurisdiction.

Although Trump still has much power to limit refugees, his executive order largely failed to enlist like-minded individuals to rise up in support of his cause at the local level. If his aim was to divide communities so the battle lines between neighbors are more clearly defined, that has also failed, except in very few cases where, it appears, false information was a catalyst.

The process in Fillmore County shows what quiet leadership, based on accurate information and an understanding of the heritage of our country, can accomplish in spite of the inflammatory barrage launched from afar that is tearing at the fabric of local communities.





The commisioners voted and a few fake preachers spoke not the people of Fillmore county.