It was the second time that the Burleigh County Commission attempted to hold a vote on whether the community would continue accepting refugees. In September, President Trump signed an executive order that requires states and local governments to give their written consent before refugees can resettled, and Burleigh County stood to be the first community to take advantage of those new rules. The decision had been slated to take place a week earlier, but too many people showed up and overwhelmed the commission chambers. Even the new venue proved to be standing room only, with a crowd that spilled outside the heavy wooden doors.
For four hours, sixth-generation North Dakotans and recent arrivals from Cameroon and Congo took turns delivering impassioned testimony in what was often a contentious debate. Ultimately, the commission voted 3-2 to keep welcoming refugees.
The decision largely carried symbolic resonance. The Trump administration has slashed the number of refugee arrivals nationwide, and Burleigh County, which has roughly 95,000 residents, took in just 24 refugees during fiscal year 2019, according to the North Dakota governor’s office. The community — home to Bismarck, the state’s capital — is slated to receive a similar number of refugees in fiscal year 2020, and the measure that passed on Monday caps the number of new arrivals at 25.
Still, residents who packed the cafeteria saw the vote as a referendum on what their community values. Speakers cited the state’s history of welcoming immigrants from Scandinavia, its tradition of “North Dakota Nice,” and the Christian faith shared by many in the room. Some raised concerns that their community would be perceived as hateful and bigoted if it took a hard-line stance against refugees.
Others spoke about the problems caused by the recent oil boom — overpopulated schools, rising crime rates, an uptick in homelessness — and questioned whether the state was overextending itself by welcoming so many newcomers.
“I’ve heard that most of the refugees coming in are women and children, and I understand that they need an education and to learn to speak English,” said a heavily bearded man who introduced himself as a sixth-generation inhabitant of North Dakota. “But we need to think about our kids here, too, before we start worrying about somebody else’s.”
Bismarck’s mayor had been among those backing a moratorium on refugees, although city officials had no say in the matter. “We have burgeoning school enrollment, veterans’ needs, homeless needs and Native American needs,” Mayor Steve Bakken, who has a nonpartisan position, told the Associated Press in advance of Monday’s vote. “This isn’t about heartstrings, this is about purse strings.”
But North Dakota’s Republican governor, Doug Burgum, signaled in November that the state would continue to accept refugees by sending a letter of consent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In a statement issued Monday, he said he had “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.”
According to the Bismarck Tribune, North Dakota received 540 refugees during fiscal year 2016, but numbers have dropped precipitously during the Trump administration. Meanwhile, Republican governors of other conservative states such as Arizona and Utah have expressed their willingness to continue resettling refugees and cited a sense of moral obligation.
Yet, Burleigh County Commission Chairman Brian Bitner told the Associated Press in advance of Monday’s vote that he believed most of his constituents were against admitting more refugees. The question had generated a more intense response than anything else he had seen during more than a decade on the commission, he said.
“The overwhelming public opinion is so clear to me, that I think if you vote for it, you’re not going to be reelected if you choose to run again,” he said.
Residents spent hours on Monday night making it clear that they disagreed with him. Some held handmade signs with slogans such as, “We love our neighbors.” A young military veteran reminded everyone that being born in the United States was akin to “winning the lottery in life.” One woman, an immigrant, said the business she and her husband own badly needed more workers. “We are just talking about 25 people tonight,” she said. “We need 25,000.”
A woman from Cameroon, pushing back against claims that refugees like her were a drain on social services, issued a challenge. “Tonight, when you leave here, go to Walmart,” she said. “See how many of them are stocking shelves at Walmart when you sleep. Then you will know what we are talking about.”
Even though the commission voted to side with refugees, it was clear the debate had taken a toll on the community. One speaker, a college sophomore originally from Congo who recalled walking to work at a burger joint in the brutal North Dakota winters, said it hurt him to hear people imply that refugees were lazy and reliant on government support.
“Since I arrived in this country, I felt like I finally found a home,” he told the commissioners. But after he saw what a divisive issue admitting refugees had become, he said, “I started asking myself many questions, trying to figure out where I actually belong.”