There was little reason for the people of Burleigh County, N.D., to debate whether they would continue welcoming refugees in their communities. President Trump largely made that decision for them by reducing the number of refugees admitted to the United States to historic lows.
With this act of civic engagement, they projected to the world that the anti-refugee policies of the Trump administration don’t reflect the nation. And for that, these small-d democrats deserve their country’s gratitude.
This is the “township democracy” that so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville. As he beautifully put it in the 1830s: “[Local] assemblies of citizens constitute the strength of free nations. Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.”
De Tocqueville, of course, was speaking of a nation that is now fundamentally different. Community engagement has long been in decline; local politics are being suffocated by the nightmare playing out on the national stage.
But Burleigh County, home of the state capital, Bismarck, was given a rare opportunity to merge its local politics with the national stage. In September, Trump signed an executive order requiring state and local governments to consent in writing that they would accept refugees before any could be settled there. And Burleigh County officials, expecting they would have the votes to refuse consent, attempted to schedule the first such vote in the nation — thrusting the county into the national spotlight and inspiring an unexpected upswell in community-level activism.
To be clear, not all of it was pretty. Many arrived at Monday’s event, often clad in Trump’s nationalistic MAGA gear, fearful of what refugees would do to their communities. If the county continued to accept refugees at the rate it had in past years — a little more than 20 people each year — how much would they cost the public? Would they take jobs needed by native North Dakotans? Where would they go to school?
But for every naysayer, there was another resident who provided evidence-based assurances: Immigrants offer a lot to local economies, often creating business and adding much-needed hands to the labor market (especially in a booming economy such as oil-rich North Dakota’s). And in fact, when taking future generations into account, they end up being a net positive for local public finances.
Residents stressed the need to appear welcoming to strangers, promising to support those who arrive from war-torn and impoverished places. One man even pledged financial support if such immigrants proved a burden on the county. Most inspiring of all were several former refugees from countries such as Cameroon and Congo who courageously stood in front of the mics, sometimes struggling with their newly learned English, and testified to the welcoming nature of their North Dakotan neighbors and classmates.
The county commissioners’ 3-to-2 vote in favor of welcoming refugees was close, but it was nonetheless a sharp rebuke of the president’s anti-immigrant agenda. Almost 70 percent of Burleigh County voters supported Trump in the 2016 election. Nearly sixty-two percent voted to oust moderate Democrat Heidi Heitkamp from the U.S. Senate last year. Perhaps this is why County Commission Chairman Brian Bitner said in an interview with the Associated Press that he never expected so much interest in the issue from the public.
The nation’s reckoning is far from over; other localities may yet take up Trump’s invitation to oppose refugee resettlement. But Burleigh County set an important precedent for the nation’s values: Even in deep-red country, will you find people who support immigrants and refuse to shut out those who need help. Let’s hope the president pays attention.