WILLMAR — In a symbolic move, the Willmar City Council adopted a resolution consenting to the continued resettlement of refugees into the community. The resolution, which passed 6 to 1 with one abstention at Monday's council meeting, is in response to President Donald Trump's executive order requiring state and local approval before refugees would be initially resettled in those locales.
"If we are having to vote on the resolution, definitely I am voting yes to reunite families," said Councilor Julie Asmus.
While the city resolution passed, it is technically not needed. According to the U.S. Department of State, only state and county approval are needed to continue accepting refugees. Kandiyohi County approved its resolution of consent on Dec. 3 in a 3-2 vote. Last week Gov. Tim Walz said Minnesota would continue to accept refugees. Both actions were sent to the U.S. State Department.
The refugee resettlement resolution came to the council from the Willmar Human Rights Commission, which voted unanimously Nov. 19 to move the resolution consenting to refugee resettlement to the City Council. At the the time, the commission did not know at that time if the city or the county would have the jurisdiction to give approval.
"What we were looking for was a family-friendly resolution. We were going to reunite families," Councilor Shawn Mueske said, who serves on the Human Rights Commission. "We were prepared to act."
A representative from Lutheran Social Service told the Kandiyohi County Board during its discussion earlier this month that the refugees settled in the county all have a family tie to the area.
While it is now understood the city's approval is not needed, Human Rights Commission Chairwoman Shelly Huseby said Monday that the commission still recommends city approval of the resolution, to build upon the welcoming resolution the council passed in early 2018.
Voting for the refugee resettlement resolution were Willmar City Councilors Vicki Davis, Kathy Schwantes, Audrey Nelsen, Fernando Alvarado, Mueske and Asmus. Councilor Andrew Plowman voted against the resolution, while Councilor Rick Fagerlie abstained and did not state a reason for his abstention.
While Plowman said he agreed with the substance of the resolution, he did not not agree with the city voting on something that is not required, especially on something so divisive as refugee resettlement.
"I feel we are being drug into a politically charged and polarizing issue against our will. If it is not necessary, I don't understand why we would take part," Plowman said. "I don't like the feel of being drug into a political issue. I don't believe that is our purview as a local municipality unless specifically tasked with that item."
Others on the council agreed with Plowman's sentiments, but also said they could not vote against a resolution that approved reuniting families and continuing Willmar's long history of welcoming refugees. Schwantes said at first she to wondered why the council was taking the issue up. But, now that it was public knowledge that it was on the council agenda, she felt it was important for the council to vote.
"Community members are waiting to hear what we have to say on this, and if we choose not to vote on this matter and let our voices be heard, others will just assume we have a 'no' vote and that we don't support this particular resolution," Schwantes said. "For us to walk away from this today leaves people with the wrong impression. It leaves me with the impression of not knowing what my co-council members really feel and really think about this."
Prior to the council discussion and vote, there were three members of the public who spoke on the issue during the open forum portion of the meeting.
Ben Larson and Anita Flowe both touched on how refugees from the past — such as the Chinese, Germans or Irish Catholics — were also treated badly when they came to America and that political parties of those eras also passed legislation framed against them.
Larson said the rhetoric of today is no different than that of a century ago.
Flowe said she and others, including important historical figures including the late Sen. John McCain, are descendants of those same people that were called worthless when they arrived in the United States.
"We don't know how valuable they may be," Flowe said of the refugees today.
Ron Christianson, a former City Council member, spoke against the resolution, saying it is not needed and would only sow more division in an already divided community.
"My recommendation is to table this resolution. It isn't required by anybody," Christianson said. "I don't think anyone in this room is against immigration, immigrants or legal refugees. We don't need any more division in this city."
While the council was not united about the resolution, and even those who voted for it had misgivings, the resolution was approved and will go to the U.S. State Department. Alvarado said Willmar has always been a welcoming community and the city needed to follow through now that the issue was sitting in front of them.
"We are a leader and we have to continue to set the standard," Alvarado said.