BISMARCK-Eight days after a racially fueled confrontation in a Fargo parking lot, North Dakota lawmakers began examining the state's refugee resettlement program Wednesday, Aug. 2.
The interim Human Services Committee's study was prompted by legislation passed earlier this year that sought an examination of various aspects of resettlement, and the committee was tasked with reviewing the impact on workforce, government services, human services, education and health care.
The study bill received some backlash during the legislative session over concerns it singled out refugees, and didn't account for the economic and cultural benefit they bring to their new communities. Committee Chairwoman Rep. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, said the panel should weigh the costs and benefits of resettlement, although some data may be hard to come by.
"If we have the cost, we should talk about it. I think we should be transparent," she said. "But at the same time, we also have to look at the benefit. And if we do both equally, it'll be alright."
The number of refugees resettled in North Dakota every year has roughly tripled over the past decade, according to a Legislative Council memo. Last year, 558 refugees were resettled in the state, down from a recent high of 590 in 2014. In 2006, there were just 182.
The state Department of Human Services moved most refugee-related services to Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota under then-Gov. John Hoeven in July 2010, according to the Legislative Council. LSS is the only federally recognized and approved refugee resettlement organization in the state.
Committee members heard from Shirley Dykshoorn, vice president for senior and humanitarian services at LSS, along with state officials who gave an overview of agency programs that affect refugees.
Recommendations to improve or modify the resettlement process must be included in the committee's study, according to the Legislative Council memo. A legislative committee that studied refugee resettlement more than 20 years ago recommended providing school districts with more money for each student who "had limited English proficiency."
Wednesday's meeting came about a week after a confrontation between three Somali-American women and a white woman at a Fargo Walmart parking lot, where a parking dispute descended into an anti-Muslim outburst that went viral. The two sides later made up after Fargo Police Chief David Todd brought them together.
But a leader in the Somali-American community said many other similar incidents go unreported.
"The state and the city asking for how much it costs to have refugees in the community, while a sensible question from the financial standpoint, it has negatively impacted our image in the community," Hukun Abdullahi, the head of the Afro American Development Association, said at the Fargo City Commission's meeting on Monday. "And it also has increased the number of hostile incidents against the refugees."
As introduced, the study bill would have allowed for a suspension of refugee resettlement if a community lacked sufficient "absorptive capacity," or the ability of community and government services to meet residents' needs. The governor would have been able to issue a statewide moratorium through an executive order.
But Rep. Christopher Olson, R-West Fargo, the bill's primary sponsor and a member of the interim Human Services Committee, asked that the bill be amended into a study after hearing hours of opposition testimony, including from new Americans who told stories of finding opportunity in North Dakota.
Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn, who has expressed frustration about what he sees as a lack of local control in the resettlement process, thanked the committee Wednesday for taking up the study and encouraged legislators to pursue a "full financial review." He pushed back against assertions that such studies cast a bad light on refugees.
"Finding out the truth and facts, that should be what we're all about," Piepkorn said.