WILLMAR — Refugees looking to rebuild their lives in the United States will still be able to come to Kandiyohi County and its cities, following the Board of Commissioners' approval to send a letter of consent to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, announcing the county's permission to continue receiving refugees who are being resettled in the United States.
This was in response to President Donald Trump's Executive Order 13888, which was signed in September. The executive order requires all states and counties to notify the State Department, in writing, that it will consent to receive refugees from the department's Reception and Placement Program into its jurisdictions.
"Each local state and then local county government has to either give consent or not give consent. If you don't do anything it is a no," said County Administrator Larry Kleindl.
The board vote at Tuesday's meeting was 3 to 2, with Commissioners Steve Ahmann and Rollie Nissen voting against it. Approving the measure were Commissioners Harlan Madsen, Roger Imdieke and Corky Berg.
"This is a really difficult decision for us," Imdieke said.
Ahmann and Nissen wanted to delay the vote until the Dec. 17 board meeting. Ahmann made a motion to table the issue until the next meeting, but it died due to the lack of a second.
Delaying the vote the commissioners said would allow for more time to gather information regarding refugee resettlement in Kandiyohi County, get feedback from the cities and to hear more public input on the issue. There was a large crowd at the meeting, though the public was not given the opportunity to speak.
"I am a person that hungers for information," Nissen said. "I really don't have the information I would like to have to make a good, solid decision."
The other three commissioners did not want to delay the decision and supported the letter.
"I will not support a no vote. I do not think it sends the appropriate, nor the honest, message to our community and our county and our country. I am going to be positive on this and I am going to vote to support," Madsen said.
All the commissioners and Kleindl did seem to be unhappy with the federal government for forcing the county to make this call to begin with as well as the lack of communication and vague directions.
"We are being thrust into this situation, being a political pawn, which I detest," Madsen said.
Even if the county had voted no to allowing the federal government to resettle refugees in Kandiyohi County, it wouldn't have stopped those individuals from moving here on their own. Once a refugee has arrived in the United States and is a legal resident they are able to move wherever they choose, just like anyone else.
Also, the executive order itself has conditions on which a refugee could be resettled in a county that did not consent. The order states the State Department could resettle a refugee in an unconsenting locale if failing to do so would be inconsistent with the strategies and procedures in 8 U.S.C 1522 Authorization for programs for domestic resettlement of and assistance to refugees.
"This vote, yes or no, doesn't change the fact that refugees can come to Minnesota," Madsen said. "It makes no difference."
The state of Minnesota has not yet responded to the executive order and consented to accepting refugees. The Trump administration is also being sued by three national resettlement agencies in an effort to stop the order from going into effect.
In 2020, the federal government is allowing only 18,000 refugees to be resettled in the United States, the lowest number since at least 1980. Approximately 7,500 will come from Africa or other locations where the people are not victims of religious persecution. Five thousand refugees will be those who are suffering religious persecution or have a well-founded fear that it might occur. Another 4,000 will be refugees from Iraq. The remaining refugee slots will be filled by individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras.
This year Kandiyohi County has received 10 refugees. Four of them came from East Africa while six were refugees from Burma. In 2018 only seven refugees were resettled in Kandiyohi County. There were 58 in 2017 and 24 in 2016.
"We are talking about a very small number of individuals, at least in the last two years," said Imdieke.
Karin Blythe of Lutheran Social Service Minnesota-St. Cloud, said all of the refugees who have been resettled in Kandiyohi County are coming because they have family here. These refugees have social and family support in place when they arrive. Blythe said that LSSMN only resettles refugees in Kandiyohi County who already have a family tie to the area.
"They are 100 percent joining families. So everyone that we are talking about specifically today has been separated from family and have been for a number of years," Blythe said. "They are often individuals that have been separated for two, to seven to 10 years."
Refugees, before entering the United States undergo a strict vetting process which includes background checks and in-person interviews.
Once they are accepted to be resettled in the United States each refugee case is assigned to a non-profit organization that receives funding from the federal government to assist the refugees in settling into their new homes. LSSMN-St. Cloud, for example, gets $2,175 total for each refugee it helps, Blythe said. Just over half of that money is direct assistance for the individual refugee for things like housing, helping them find work, applying for Social Security and visas and enrolling in school.
"It is a single one-time grant. The funds must be spent within 90 days of arrival. It does not follow you," Blythe said.
The remaining $1,000 is used by LSS, within 90 days, to administer the refugee resettlement service program.
There are a few state programs that offer eligible refugees cash assistance for up to eight months. Refugees, as legal residents of the United States, are also able to apply for other assistance services, just like anyone else.
"They are held to the same standard as any other resident," Blythe said.