DULUTH – After more than four hours of discussion spread across Tuesday, the St. Louis County board voted 4-3 to forgo further action on a controversial measure giving consent to the resettlement of refugees within its boundaries.
By voting to send the resolution back to the county's administration, commissioners bypassed a roll call that would have forced them to choose a side in a debate sparked by an executive order by President Donald Trump that has been temporarily blocked by a federal court.
The vote came more than four months after the board tabled the resolution after some commissioners said they needed more time to discuss the issue with constituents.
"I don't have an issue with refugees. But I don't like putting this forward when we don't need to do anything," said Board Chairman Mike Jugovich, who called the resolution a symbolic gesture while Trump's policy is tied up in court.
Jugovich voted with Commissioners Paul McDonald, Keith Musolf and Keith Nelson — who represent more rural parts of the county — to pass the resolution back to the county to wait and see if federal action makes it necessary to take a stance on the matter. Duluth-area Commissioners Frank Jewell, Patrick Boyle and Beth Olson opposed the delay.
Members of the public could not attend the meeting at the county's government services center in Virginia due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But about 100 residents called in or left voice mails to weigh in on the issue, and a group of protesters gathered outside, waving flags and signs asking officials not to let refugees into the county.
"Today, I speak with a heavy heart — a heart that is open and breaking at the hatred and racism we have witnessed over the past five months since we started this conversation," Olson said.
In September, Trump passed an order requiring agencies to get written consent from state and local governments before resettling refugees in their jurisdictions.
Then in January, a federal judge in Maryland barred the White House from enforcing the order after a group of resettlement agencies sued to overturn it.
U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte wrote that that giving states and local officials the power to ban refugees would be unlawful. He granted the plaintiffs a temporary injunction, which keeps the system functioning as it has for years while the lawsuit is pending.
The federal government is challenging this ruling in the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
State and local officials have mostly dropped their deliberations since Messitte's the decision. A handful of communities, including Minnesota's Beltrami County, chose to deny consent.
Only one refugee has been settled in St. Louis County since 2011. Newly arrived refugees must be settled within 50 miles of Minnesota's five resettlement agencies unless they are joining a family member who already lives elsewhere in the state. The agency closest to St. Louis County is 150 miles away in St. Cloud.
Those urging commissioners to vote to refuse refugees repeated concerns about public safety and the county's economy, particularly given the unemployment surge caused by the coronavirus.
"I just don't understand why they would consider such a motion," said Helen Niemi of Iron, Minn. "We don't have jobs for the people that are here."
More than half of the commenters Tuesday opposed the measure, most of whom were from more rural parts of the county. Others evoked America's "melting pot" reputation, using the Iron Range's immigrant history to describe what they think closing the county to refugees would mean.
"It symbolizes a closed door. It symbolizes fear," said Leah Rogne of Gheen, a town in the northern part of the county. "It symbolizes the opposite of love."
Jugovich said he was disappointed by the amount of misinformation he heard during Tuesday's meeting — residents calling refugees illegal, making anti-Muslim statements and spreading rumors that they were going to turn a school in Buhl into refugee housing.
"This executive order is doing what it was intended to do," Musolf said. "It's divided us and it's divided our constituents."