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Refugee resettlement means tough decisions for ND

The Burleigh County Commission has decided to continue accepting up to 25 refugees for resettlement in the county. Based on public sentiment voiced to commissioners prior to the vote, the anticipation had been the county would become the first in the country to reject refugee resettlement under authority granted in a presidential order. Instead, commissioners narrowly voted to allow resettlement.

Cass and Grand Forks counties already had decided they would continue to accept refugees. Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney has stated refugees are needed to boost the city’s economy and that 90% become employed within three months. Many of the refugees coming to North Dakota have located in Fargo, and their presence has been readily apparent in the retail trade, schools, churches and other aspects of life in that city.

There’s an undercurrent of discussion that Minot could be approached next by Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, the state’s resettlement organization. If so, that would put Ward County and Minot in a position of having to make a decision much like Cass, Grand Forks and Burleigh have been asked to make.

Much of the objection in Burleigh County had revolved around the cost of resettlement. Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken had stated the city would have a difficult time if it must assist refugees because it already is struggling with meeting the needs of veteran, homeless and Native American populations as well as keeping up with increasing school needs. His suggestion that the community take care of its own before accepting people from elsewhere resonates with the wary, but the reason the community faces demands on its charitable and government organizations may be because people from elsewhere already have come in recent years.

Every county faced with a request to resettle refugees needs to consider its capacity to do so. LSSND says it also considers such factors when deciding where to place refugees. Refugees might need to access federal assistance programs such as food and housing assistance while they get established, but that is true regardless of where they settle.

There are both costs and rewards to inviting refugees to become part of a community. Given the estimated 30,000 available jobs in a state that has long struggled with out-migration, having more available workers could be a good thing. Minot employers understand the difficulty in finding employees, and landlords struggle with vacancy rates that are higher than they would like. Helping refugees assimilate into a community and become productive, contributing citizens would be the ideal for cities and counties that can manage it. However, it’s not just about ability. Conclusions about refugee resettlement are likely to be based less on what residents feel they are able to do and more on what they collectively are willing to do.

It was a tough decision for Burleigh County. It may be a tough decision facing other North Dakota counties in the not too distant future. Now might not be too early to consider whether we are prepared to make a decision.

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