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After more than 50 speakers and intense debate, Burleigh County Commission votes 3-2 to continue accepting refugees

Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken voiced his opposition to new refugee resettlements at a Burleigh County Commission meeting in Bismarck on Dec. 9, 2019. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service1 / 2
Rev. Christina Martin of Mandan's First Lutheran Church (right) sits among Burleigh County residents in favor of allowing new refugee resettlements at a county commission meeting in Bismarck on Dec. 9, 2019. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service2 / 2

BISMARCK — After several hours of highly contentious public comment, the Burleigh County Commission voted Monday, Dec. 9, to continue accepting refugees for resettlement in the county.

The commission was split 3-2 on the decision that could have made the county containing North Dakota's capital city the first local government in the country to bar new refugees. Commissioners Jerry Woodcox, Mark Armstrong and Kathleen Jones voted to continue accepting refugees, while Chairman Brian Bitner and Commissioner Jim Peluso voted against the measure.

The approved measure caps the number of resettlements at 25 over the next year and allows the issue to be revisited annually.

A meeting last week where the commission was supposed to vote on Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota's request to continue resettling refugees in the county was rescheduled for Monday after more than 100 residents wanted to speak on the subject. The bigger venue at Horizon Middle School's cafeteria in Bismarck still wasn't sufficient. More than 500 people filled the space, with some standing outside the cafeteria's doors.

A line of speakers snaked from the podium to the back of the room after the meeting began at 6 p.m. In all, the commission heard from more than 50 speakers, including former refugees who were resettled in Bismarck, religious leaders, politicians and county residents on both sides of the argument.

Tresor Mugawaneza, who came to Bismarck as a 16-year-old refugee from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, said his story is proof that refugees make positive contributions to the community. He quickly picked up English, became a soccer standout and got a job washing dishes at the Wood House Restaurant in Bismarck. He said he rode his bike to the restaurant — even in the winter. Now a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Mary, Mugawaneza hopes to run his own business someday.

"We are not in this country just to take your government money," Mugawaneza said. "In fact, we are here to work and be successful in life just like everybody else."

Those opposed to new resettlements mainly spoke about the taxpayer cost of accommodating refugees and the need to help disadvantaged people already living in the community. State Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, was the first speaker at the four-hour meeting and said the community cannot continue accepting refugees because the economic costs associated with providing medical, housing and school services to refugee families are still unknown.

"As elected officials, you're tasked with one thing only and that is to provide services to the residents of this county in a manner which most wisely spends the taxpayers' dollars," Becker said. "You need to stand up and say, 'We're going to have answers, and when we have those answers, only then will we have the ability to make an informed decision.'"

Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken also spoke against the measure, saying the community must first address homelessness and racial disparities with Native Americans before it can take on more refugees.

"When you look at the finances that go into play, who's first at the well?" Bakken said. "We're extremely welcoming, but when you don't have a situation financially to support what you currently have in needs — and now you're going to throw a bunch of needs on top of that — show me the numbers."

Former U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon said the commission should not be swayed by the notion that refugees pose a danger to the community.

"If anyone tells you that more immigrants and refugees will result in high crime, they are not being truthful," Purdon said. "There will not be additional law enforcement costs that accompany 24 or 25 additional refugees."

Isabel Oliveira, a Brazilian immigrant who owns Bismarck's James River Cafe with her husband, said the state should be taking in all the industrious people it can find to fill out its workforce.

"My business is shrinking because we don't have enough workers," Oliveira said. "We're here talking about 25 refugees. We need 25,000 refugees."

Bitner and Peluso expressed their disapproval throughout the meeting and said they couldn't approve a measure that came with an unknown pricetag for taxpayers at the local, state and national levels. Woodcox voiced his support for the measure prior to the vote, but Jones did not tip her hand. Armstrong was out of town with family obligations and voted over the phone.

The meeting got heated at moments, with back-and-forth exchanges between commissioners and members of the public. Unlike most government meetings, many speakers received applause or jeers upon finishing their remarks.

The division in the room was both ideological and physical, with each side occupying a separate half of the cafeteria. Several speakers noted that the community's apparent disconnect on the issue was unfortunate.

A September executive order issued by President Donald Trump allowed state and local governments to decide whether to receive new resettled refugees. North Dakota's Republican governor, Doug Burgum, announced last month the state would continue to accept refugees, but each local government would be allowed to make its own decision.

Burgum said localities that decide to deny new resettlements could hurt the state economically and send the wrong message to businesses looking to come to North Dakota.

"We have serious concerns that denying resettlement to a handful of well-vetted and often family-connected refugees would send a negative signal beyond our borders at a time when North Dakota is facing a severe workforce shortage and trying to attract capital and talent to our state," Burgum said.

Cass and Grand Forks counties already declared they would keep accepting refugees, which means all three North Dakota counties that are certified by the U.S. State Department to take in refugees have said they will continue to do so.

Over the last year, Lutheran Social Services has helped resettle 25 refugees, including 17 from the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Bismarck, according to the U.S. State Department Refugee Processing Center.