ST. CLOUD – Amid mounting national scrutiny of federal resettlement programs, the St. Cloud City Council on Monday soundly rejected a proposal by one of its members to recommend a moratorium on refugee resettlement here.
Council Member Jeff Johnson said that his measure wasn’t intended to permanently ban refugee resettlement, but rather, temporarily stop it in 2018 until the city gets details on its cost to taxpayers. “The overall quality of life” for residents will continue to be “adversely impaired by excessive demands on local resources” by those who are resettling in the city, he stated in the resolution that he presented to the council.
After hearing from supporters and opponents, the council voted down Johnson’s measure 6-1.
The City Hall meeting drew more than 300 residents, some carrying American flags while others held signs that read “All Are Welcome” — reflecting the growing and often tense debate in this city of 67,000 residents over the resettlement issue.
Earlier this summer, dozens of residents delivered a petition to the council demanding that it limit or control resettlement. But just two weeks ago, shortly after Johnson’s proposed measure was e-mailed to his colleagues, the council did just the opposite, approving by a 5-1 vote a resolution by Council Member Jeff Goerger that stated St. Cloud is a welcoming community. Johnson cast the lone dissenting vote then. On Monday, the council reaffirmed Goerger’s resolution, with Johnson casting the lone opposing vote.
Natalie Ringsmuth, executive director of #UniteCloud, a nonprofit that promotes tolerance in central Minnesota, said the vote, while symbolic, was a pivotal moment in helping St. Cloud shed a long-held reputation for being a racist, unwelcoming area.
“St. Cloud is basically stepping out and saying ‘This is who we are — we are a welcoming community,’ ” she said. “People can point to this and say St. Cloud is moving in the right direction. They can’t say we’re bigots and racists anymore. We’re not ‘White Cloud.’ ”
East African refugees — mostly Somali — first started moving to this Mississippi River city about seven years ago. Since then, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, the only organization that oversees refugee resettlement in St. Cloud, has helped move an average of 189 refugees a year — a total of 1,512 — to the city. The organization expects to resettle another 225 refugees here in 2018.
That’s helped to make St. Cloud not only bigger, but more diverse.
Of the more than 59,000 residents in the city in 2010, 92 percent were white. By 2015, the city had grown to 66,000 residents, 84 percent of whom were white, according to U.S. Census data American Fact Finder.
But the rapidly changing face of the community has been unsettling for some. Anti-Muslim events here have drawn crowds, mirroring rising anti-Muslim sentiment nationally. When a 20-year-old Somali refugee stabbed and wounded 10 people at a local mall in 2016, some feared that Muslims might be targeted in retaliation.
Instead, community leaders hosted unity rallies and posted signs across neighborhoods welcoming refugees and people of different faiths.
But in August, a group of residents calling themselves “St. Cloud Citizens for Transparency” presented a petition to the City Council with nearly 300 signatures from people in Minnesota and 11 other states, asking the council to control refugee resettlement. The petition was led in part by Kathleen Virnig, a St. Cloud resident, who said in an interview that residents just want the city to have a say in how many refugees are resettled and know how much it will cost.
“I have no hatred for some of these people, it’s the religious differences about their way of life,” Virnig said.
Helena Halverson, who has lived in St. Cloud since 1977, added in an interview that a moratorium would put “a pause” on refugee resettlement as the city gets more data.
“I do not like a label that I’m racist or Islamophobic,” she said before Monday’s meeting. “I do like justice and fairness and I do like transparency.”
While introducing his resolution last month, Goerger said St. Cloud is a “just and welcoming community,” a sentiment he believes is shared by most of his council colleagues and the city.
“When communities have hostile reputations toward minorities, that is a really hard reputation to overcome. And unfortunately St. Cloud has that reputation,” said Christopher Lehman, a St. Cloud State University professor of ethnic studies who was one of five speakers who addressed the council at that meeting. “St. Cloud is only going to get more diverse. And we have to decide whether we’re going to embrace that or not.”
On Monday, before Johnson presented his resolution, resident Christopher Chamberlin presented a petition with 500 signatures that he said were in support of the moratorium.
When Johnson introduced the resolution, he cited U.S. State Department travel warnings to places such as Somalia and Ethiopia.
“I’m really troubled here,” Johnson said.
Johnson isn’t alone in asking questions about resettlement costs to local cities. The Trump administration has moved to halt and shrink refugee resettlement at the federal level.
Data that the state compiled for the Star Tribune earlier this year showed that in 2015, Minnesota spent more than $180 million in state and federal dollars on cash, food and medical assistance for refugees — an increase, but still less than 2 percent of total expenses for those programs.
Stearns County staff members, meanwhile, are compiling updated data on resettlement costs to present to the County Board in mid-November. And at the state level, the Minnesota Legislative Auditor’s office is assessing what kind of data on refugee resettlement costs are available to St. Cloud and other communities across the state.
Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota will host a public webinar on resettlement Nov. 14 with panelists discussing the issue and taking questions. Other organizations also are working on outreach and education.
As Johnson presented his resolution Monday, #UniteCloud was holding a panel discussion to give residents a chance to ask questions of Muslims. While Ringsmuth said recent anti-Muslim rhetoric doesn’t mean the group must go back to square one, she said it shows that it needs to expand its education efforts beyond St. Cloud to outlying central Minnesota towns.
“Everybody,” she said, “wants to have a welcoming community.”