Burleigh County sets special meeting on whether to continue accepting refugees

Shirley Dykshoorn, vice president for senior and humanitarian services for Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, addresses the Burleigh County Commission on Monday. The commission delayed a vote on consenting to the continuation of refugee resettlement, to give a large crowd more opportunity to comment.

BISMARCK — Burleigh County will hold a special meeting Monday, Dec. 9, to take comment on whether to continue accepting refugees, after the topic drew an overflow crowd to a regular county commission meeting this week and discussion had to be called off.

The meeting is at 6 p.m. in the Horizon Middle School cafeteria, according to Burleigh County Interim Auditor Allan Vietmeier.

His staff, along with commissioners, considered holding the meeting at the Bismarck Event Center, but the county would have been charged $3,775.The school district doesn’t charge to hold special meetings.

The public will be able to voice opinions on whether to give consent to Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota to continue resettling refugees in the county. During the meeting, a commissioner could propose for the commission to vote on the request.

More than 100 people attended the regular county commission meeting on Monday, Dec. 2. County commissioners delayed a vote after 25 people had to be moved upstairs for space and fire code reasons.

The proposal to continue resettling refugees comes in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order in September allowing for state and local governments to decide whether to receive or reject resettled refugees.

Three resettlement agencies including Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, of which Lutheran Social Services is an affiliate, have sued in federal court.

Dozens of mayors across the country also have condemned the order.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum last month sent a letter of consent to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to “receive resettlement refugees, in conjunction with the continued assent and cooperation of local jurisdictions in our state.”

People who attended Monday’s meeting were not able to comment during the meeting. Many audience members had heard of the meeting through social media, where the proposal has been a hot topic.

Commissioners did not take a stance on the issue during Monday’s meeting, but they did briefly discuss it.

Commissioner Jerry Woodcox asked if Lutheran Social Services would be able to place a quota on the amount of refugees resettled.

Shirley Dykshoorn, Lutheran Social Services’ vice president for senior and humanitarian services, responded that the nonprofit could “indicate that there would be a certain capacity to resettlement” when it files its annual report to its national nonprofit partners, including Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Commissioner Jim Peluso estimated he had received about 150 phone calls and text messages from people, mostly against refugee resettlement.

“We have so little information about what this is that it’s very difficult to go against your constituents when you hear 90% against any type of resettlement or assimilation,” he said.

Peluso said it was unfair for Lutheran Social Services to “come to this commission now and try to change public perception.”

North Dakota has been among states that resettled the most refugees per capita every fiscal year since 2016, according to annual reports from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

North Dakota has received 202 refugees since the 2018 fiscal year, according to the U.S. State Department Refugee Processing Center. Most refugees, 57%, came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while the second highest number of refugees, 8%, came from Bhutan.

Refugee resettlement has declined annually in North Dakota since the 2017 fiscal year, when the state received 420 refugees. In 2018, the state received 162 refugees, followed by 127 in 2019. North Dakota is expected to receive 18 refugees during the 2020 fiscal year.

During the 2019 fiscal year, 24 refugees arrived in Bismarck, according to Lutheran Social Services. In 2018, Bismarck received 22.

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