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Burleigh takes courageous stand for refugees

If North Dakota was going to emulate President Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, our first chapter would have to be dedicated to the three Burleigh County commissioners who voted to keep the door open for refugees.

President Donald Trump authorized local governments to veto the importing of refugees. After four hours of public comment, the commission voted 3-2 to accept the 2020 allocation of 25 refugees.

The vote astonished some since Burleigh County and the State of North Dakota are deep in Trump country. In 2016, North Dakota ranked third in support of the President with a vote of 63-27 percent. Burleigh County was even stronger for Trump – 69-23 percent.

According to the Washington Post report of the meeting, someone suggested that anyone who voted for the refugees would not likely get re-elected. Looking at the statistics from 2016, this may be a valid observation but there are times when people rise above themselves.

Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken complained about the pressing needs in North Dakota, a joke for a state with $6 billion stashed away and not spending it on Bakken’s list of school enrollment, veterans’ needs, homeless needs and Native American needs.

The Legislature has already determined that it is appropriating enough money for all of these needs. Some of us may disagree with legislative priorities but it is their decision to make.

Another speaker claimed that objections were all about money. The federal government is footing most of the bill. And only 25 refugees being authorized means there isn’t much money involved so there must be another reason.

Post Writer Antonia Noori Farzan concluded that the “residents who packed the cafeteria saw the vote as a referendum on their community values.”

According to Farzan, arguments made for keeping the door open included references to the immigration from Scandinavia, Christian responsibility for taking the stranger in, and fear that North Dakota would be labelled as bigoted.

Yes, immigrants made North Dakota socially, politically and economically successful. It would be shameful if the children of immigrants slammed the door on people who wanted to do exactly what their forefathers had done.

Some Christian speakers reminded those in attendance that it was an occasion to demonstrate the love of God. With the Christian faith becoming more shallow as each year passes, it was indeed a good opportunity to stop the slide when the nation was watching.

The 3-2 vote was a courageous blow against bigotry, a disease with which most of us in North Dakota struggle. A vote to deny refugees would have been interpreted across the country primarily as a vote for hate and bigotry.

On this point, it is interesting how history repeats itself.

In the early 1960s, the Office of Economic Opportunity in Johnson’s War on Poverty suggested that North Dakota sponsor a Job Corps at Fort Lincoln.

While those of us in the government were discussing the logistics of accepting the offer, someone in local government was reported in the press as saying that black Job Corps students wouldn’t have anybody with whom to associate. That suggested that the white folks weren’t going to have anything to do with the black kids.

When that comment was reported, the discussion in the Capitol changed. Logistics were forgotten and the issue became whether or not we could let the nation think that we were all bigots in North Dakota. So we were forced to take the Job Corps, logistical problems notwithstanding.

Three county commissioners have put their offices within reach of the bigots. If anything, the voters should give these commissioners a positive vote for their courage.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

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