BEMIDJI, Minn. – The northern Minnesota outpost of Beltrami County is emerging as the latest flash point in the nation’s debate over refugee resettlement, revealing an intense divide among residents straining from years of poverty and economic distress.
“I see what goes on down in California and all these other places where they have so many immigrants, illegal ones, and you hear about it through Facebook and different places, and I just do not approve that it should be brought to Bemidji, Minnesota,” said Joyce Fargen, 86, of Bemidji.
The County Board last week voted to ban refugee resettlement in the county of 47,000 residents, becoming the first county in Minnesota and one of the few in the nation to do so. The move drew criticism in Minnesota and across the country, with an influential DFL state legislator suggesting on social media that state aid should be cut to the county. In the aftermath of the vote, residents on both sides are now wrestling with how they came to so vividly embody the national debate over how many refugees America should accommodate, and where they should go.
“Our county is suffering right now and how can we take more on? That is my biggest concern,” said Bemidji resident Lonnie Sempel, 68, who arrived at the meeting early for a seat before the crowd grew to standing room only. “There’s a lack of funding for the homeless, vets, welfare — we’re underfunded for everything, basically.”
Beltrami County’s historic vote was largely symbolic: It has not resettled refugees for years, and is not being targeted by refugee agencies for resettlement anytime soon. But many want to send a message that helping outsiders is simply a lesser priority as long as those already in Beltrami County struggle.
In recent years, the county named after Italian adventurer Giacomo Beltrami experienced multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls as foster care placements have dramatically risen, draining financial reserves. Fully 18% of Beltrami County, which includes Leech Lake and Red Lake Indian reservations, lives in poverty.
“I’d like to take another few families and help, but we’re one of the highest welfare communities in Minnesota … we are not taking care of the people we have,” said Davey Mills, 50. “I think our police force is maxed to the hilt, I think our welfare system is maxed to the hilt. I have no problem with taking in more people, but show me where the money is.”
He was contemplating the vote over lunch at the Bemidji Eagles Club with a handful of friends. One skeptic at the table questioned if the county would take the refugees if they were coming from Winnipeg.
“No!” insisted Mills. “I don’t think they would. I’m not racist against who we take in.”
At a nearby table, Cheryl Bridgman, 71, flashed a thumbs up to signal her approval of the County Board’s vote.
“I think the whole nation needs to do that,” she said.
Just 1.7% of the county is foreign-born, so resistance to refugees in Beltrami County often doesn’t come from firsthand experience. Rather, many opponents cited news and social media reports, along with anecdotal accounts from friends and family members living elsewhere, of how refugee resettlement had played out in other parts of the country. Some pointed to St. Cloud, where a burgeoning Somali refugee community has prompted criticism from some white locals.
Anthony Rossberg, a 31-year-old resident of Blackduck, said he used to live in St. Cloud. If refugees come to Beltrami County, he said, “all of our public systems are going to be drained.” He noted that his brother in St. Cloud makes less money than he does but can’t qualify for WIC benefits for his children, given all the refugees there, while Rossberg can get those benefits in Beltrami County.
However, Rossberg noted a common misconception about public benefits. An influx of new immigrants who qualify for WIC in a community would not change eligibility for others in that community. Eligibility rules are the same in all Minnesota communities, said Scott Smith, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health.
The vote came in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order in September requiring consent from local officials before any refugees would be resettled in their communities, thrusting the heated federal immigration debate into the hands of more than 3,000 counties across America. Taking no action is considered a rejection of refugees, but in Beltrami County, Commissioner Reed Olson was adamant that a vote be taken so he could register his support for refugee resettlement on a board where three of five leaders opposed it.
Olson tried to explain to the angry crowd that the chances of many refugees coming here was slim. They would be headed instead, he said, to big cities: Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York, Dallas. Members of the audience crammed into the County Board chambers interrupted him with shouts of disapproval: Whatever! We don’t believe that at all! You’re living in a fantasy world!
“There are not people waiting in the wings to come here — that is just a fallacy,” said Olson.
‘I think it’s a disgrace’
Monika Schneider struggles to maintain staffing at the Wild Hare Bistro, which she co-owns with Olson, and said she’d be willing to give jobs there to refugees who move to town — along with apartments upstairs, which she also has a hard time renting out. With some people threatening to boycott the area in their summer travels, Schneider said it isn’t fair for commissioners to take business away from shop owners. But the issue is also deeply personal for Schneider, whose parents arrived in America in the 1950s as refugees from Germany and Yugoslavia. Her father escaped from a concentration camp as a child.
“I think it’s a disgrace,” Schneider said of the vote.
Sandy Hennum, executive director at Village of Hope, tried to see opponents’ focus on needy residents as a good sign. The nonprofit houses homeless families and has had to turn away many due to a lack of space.
“I hope it wasn’t necessarily a vote against refugees — it was a vote for people that are living here in Beltrami County that are struggling,” said Hennum.
She added: “To have that room filled with people saying we want to help the people that are already here, that encourages me … I’m hoping that every single one of those people that said they want to take care of their own will really think about what that means for them. Does that mean donating to a nonprofit organization that is helping with homelessness? Does that mean volunteering with a food shelf?”
Ashley Cooper was angry when she saw the news flash across social media on Tuesday night. The mother of seven, who lives in Village of Hope, is skeptical that the vote was truly born out of concern for helping people like her.
“I really don’t feel like they’re worried about our problems here,” said Cooper, 32. “I think people are just scared of change.”