WINONA, MINN. – When Fatima Said asked the City Council here to join a national move to embrace immigrants, refugees and all other newcomers, the council unanimously approved the idea that same night.
The vote made Winona the first Minnesota city to join Welcoming America, a national network of local governments and nonprofits.
"I was so proud of that," recalled Said, who arrived with her family in Rochester in December 1993 as Bosnian refugees. Volunteers met them with open arms, she says. "This multicultural society in America is a beauty."
In the two years since, however, the movement that Winona embraced has met with increasingly hostile resistance in cities and towns across Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, exposing deep rifts and anxiety over immigration, refugees, race, culture and religion — particularly Islam.
Over the winter in Hutchinson, the debate grew heated when City Council Members John Lofdahl and Steve Cook proposed a resolution saying the city welcomes diversity in all forms. Lofdahl, a veteran who once tracked Russian submarines around the world, said many people misunderstood the resolution as a backdoor way to provide sanctuary to immigrants who are in the country illegally.
"We didn't even have the resolution out in print and there already was pushback," Cook said.
The council rejected the measure 3-2.
Around the same time, it took two tries to get an inclusion resolution through the Grand Forks, N.D., City Council. Council Member Danny Weigel questioned whether the first draft might conflict with his church's stand on same-sex marriage. Local resident Nelson Russert called it "a dogmatic, ideological manifesto" and objected that the modified version, approved by a 7-0 vote, failed to consider that "many citizens believe that our relative homogeneity and comparatively conservative social environment are among the area's greatest assets."
Those who support the welcoming initiatives and similar efforts see them as important value statements critical to attracting residents, especially in rural communities that are struggling to recruit and hold workers for hard-to-fill, low-skilled jobs.
"I can't understand how many people have problems with Welcoming America. We work together because there is no other way," said Said, executive director of Project Fine, a nonprofit that works to integrate newcomers through education. "You love your own and you respect others. That's what people need to learn — to be open-minded and respect each other."
But even in cities such as St. Cloud and Willmar, which passed resolutions, tensions ran high. Opponents in both cities focused their objections on Somali immigrants, with allegations being raised that they spread disease, commit crimes, take advantage of public assistance, provide recruits for Islamic terrorism and generally resist assimilation.
Ron Branstner, a resident of Eden Valley who often testifies against Welcoming initiatives, told the Willmar City Council that the resolution is more than just a "feel-good idea."
"If you pass this, there are things that come behind this," Branstner said. "Free speech is at risk."
A truce in Tennessee
The Welcoming America network grew out of an initiative that started in 2006 in Nashville as the population boomed, mostly from the influx of immigrants and refugees.
Seven years later, the network launched its nationwide Welcoming Cities program, backed by the Clinton Foundation. It included faith groups, nonprofits and local governments interested in training and sharing ideas about how best to help the newcomers.
Said got involved with Welcoming America about 2010, which led to President Barack Obama designating her an "Outstanding Champion of Change."
During the 2016 presidential campaign Donald Trump made fighting illegal immigration a centerpiece of his platform. Since his election, he has vowed to aggressively pursue deportations for those who are in the country illegally and also curtailed targets for legal immigration.
Many cities reacted to Trump's message by passing resolutions, declaring themselves friendly, hospitable places. Some proclaimed themselves "sanctuaries" for immigrants, saying they would not work with federal officials seeking to identify people who are here illegally for deportation.
That rankles many conservatives who see the Welcoming Cities network as a liberal movement.
But the "welcoming cities" initiatives are not all the same.
Elsewhere in Minnesota, Austin, St. Charles and Minneapolis have joined Welcoming America, as have Fargo and Grand Forks in North Dakota.
"It was an easy decision," said David Kramer, a member of the St. Charles City Council and vice president of Project Fine. He said when he was a member of the school board he could see the demographic shift coming. Kramer says 27 percent or more of his city's 3,700 residents are immigrants, adding that it's vital that the shrinking white population establish a good relationship with them.
"It's the concept of 'Minnesota Nice' to the Nth degree," he said.
Some Minnesota cities — including Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Moorhead, Northfield, Richfield, Robbinsdale, St. Cloud and Willmar — have approved "welcoming" or "inclusion" resolutions without joining Welcoming America.
Still others have taken different approaches.
St. Paul went on the record in December 2015 deploring hate speech aimed at immigrants or refugees. Woodbury wrote welcoming and inclusion value statements into its strategic plans in 2015 and 2017. Alexandria works closely with the nonprofit Inclusion Network on diversity issues. And Roseville posted an "inclusion statement" on its website last July.
In March, Golden Valley became the latest Minnesota city to formally declare that it "believes in and stands for the values of social equity, inclusion, and justice," according a statement adopted unanimously by the City Council. "We welcome individuals to Golden Valley regardless of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, immigration status, gender, gender identity, marital status, age, disability, economic status, sexual orientation, familial status, or cultural background."
Kirsten Santelices, Golden Valley's human resources director, said the statement put the city's values into writing for the first time. She said it was prompted by "the national political landscape. … Everyone was overwhelmingly positive and excited by the statement."
That's not the case across the border in Hudson, Wis.
A year ago, Alice Urban and some of her friends grew tired of someone stealing the gay pride flags that their neighbor would hang outside of her home, so they hung their own rainbow flags in solidarity. Those flags were stolen, too, and one turned up partly burned.
That prompted an ad hoc group of residents, already upset over efforts to stop Syrian refugees from moving into their historic St. Croix River town, to draft a resolution letting the world know that the city officially welcomes all comers, including immigrants, refugees, people of color, Muslims and those of different sexual orientations.
That drew an immediate response from a group calling itself Citizens for the St. Croix Valley, which successfully lobbied the mayor to delay a vote. Dianne Joachim, a Hudson business owner, asked if the measure would be used to accuse those who disagree with it of hate speech.
"It's concerned citizens wanting to keep our conservative values. It has nothing to do with race," Joachim said recently in an interview outside of her home in New Richmond, Wis., where an American flag hangs from her mailbox and a large bald eagle carving stands guard alongside her driveway.
Ultimately, the city's council killed the inclusion resolution by unanimously passing an ordinance in November stating that it would only consider resolutions required by local, state or federal laws or regulations, or if at least five members agree to consider them.
Since then, Citizens for the St. Croix Valley has maintained an active, if anonymous, website and Facebook page, routinely posting articles from the arch-conservative Breitbart News and similar online publications.
Last week, more than 100 people gathered at the Hudson House Hotel at the group's invitation to hear Aynaz Anni Cyrus, a naturalized U.S. citizen who fled her native Iran as a refugee. Cyrus argued that Islam must be routed from America at all costs and mentioned that she recently had visited a Minnesota city that she argued already resembles the repressive Islamic Republic of Iran but couldn't recall its name.
"St. Cloud!" the audience erupted.
"Yes," Cyrus said. "St. Cloud."
Despite their defeat, those supporting formally adopting welcoming language in Hudson have not given up.
They've formed the Hudson Inclusion Alliance, which holds monthly strategy sessions and keeps a close watch on Citizens for the St. Croix Valley.
Tim Sackett, a chaplain with Transport for Christ, a national ministry for truckers, attends meetings of both the Inclusion Alliance and the Citizens for the St. Croix Valley hoping to find common ground.
"I'm interested in a quote that says, 'If you've been the most fortunate or if you have plenty, then you should build a longer table, not a higher fence,' " said Sackett, who works out of a chapel set up in a semi trailer at a Hudson truck stop. "The Inclusion Alliance, they want to build a longer table, and the concerned Citizens, they want to build a higher fence.
"I can find something valid in both conversations and I think there should be a way to have a sit-down. But the longer this goes on, that gap is getting wider."