North Dakota leads nation in refugee resettlement per capita

FARGO - Over roughly the past two years, no state has taken in more refugees per capita than North Dakota, a distinction the mayor of the state's largest city said should inspire pride.
Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota on 20th Avenue South in Fargo. File photo by Nick Wagner / The Forum

FARGO – Over roughly the past two years, no state has taken in more refugees per capita than North Dakota, a distinction the mayor of the state's largest city said should inspire pride.

"We're reaching out and trying to help our neighbors," said Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney. "We have jobs, we have needs, and we're trying to grow as a state."

Populous states like California and Texas take in the largest total number of refugees, but relative to its population, North Dakota takes in the most.

From fiscal year 2014 through this August, North Dakota took in 1,001 refugees, equivalent to 135 refugees per 100,000 state residents.

Over the same period, Texas took in the largest number of refugees, about 13,000, equivalent to 49 refugees per 100,000 of that state's residents.

Of the five states that accept the most refugees per capita, three are low-population states with less than 1 million residents, according to 2014 census figures: North Dakota, South Dakota and Vermont. The other two states in the top five are Nebraska and Idaho.

Minnesota took in the eighth-most refugees per capita in the recent two-year period - 77 per 100,000 residents.

Despite a decades-long history in North Dakota, refugee resettlement here has attracted some recent controversy. A Change.org petition from August calling on a moratorium on resettlements in Fargo has more than 3,000 signatures, and the petition creator, Damon Ouradnik, says he has been in contact with the offices of Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

In response to President Obama's plan to allow more refugees into the country in the next two years, Cramer announced this week he was co-sponsoring legislation that would give Congress, rather than the president, control over how many refugees enter the U.S.

Cramer said "state and local governments should be concerned" about the financial impact of increasing the number of refugees from 70,000 to 100,000 in the next two years.

"It will be taxpayers footing the bill for these refugees," he said in the statement. Cramer's office did not make him available for questions on Friday.

Jessica Thomasson, CEO of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, the state's only resettlement agency, disputes the notion that refugees are a burden on taxpayers, saying the new arrivals quickly get jobs and are productive members of the community.

In recent years, the refugees arriving in North Dakota have primarily been from Bhutan, Iraq, Somalia and Congo, according to LSS. Other groups that have arrived over the years include Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Kurd and Bosnian. About 70 percent of the roughly 400 to 500 refugees who arrive annually in North Dakota settle in Fargo, with the rest going to Grand Forks and Bismarck.

"In our experience, people really do settle in and make this their home," Thomasson said.

Thomasson said she is aware that North Dakota accepts the most refugees per capita, and thinks the statistic is not important.

"When you look at some of these states that are at the top of that per capita, they tend to be low-population states" with active resettlement programs, she said. "That ratio will tend to put us at the top."

When you look at the actual numbers of refugees, they "really aren't very large," she said.

Mayor Mahoney said North Dakota accepting the most refugees per capita should be celebrated given the benefits they bring to the state.

"We've got a glut of jobs that need to be filled," he said. "If you talk to a lot of employers, a lot of times we can't get enough people in the community to take jobs that we need taken."

The Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp. echoed that point in August, saying refugees help with economic growth and bring diversity. The EDC declined to comment for this story.

Mahoney said "the more we mix and bring things together, it actually looks better for the community, 'cause you grow and develop."

Asked to explain some of the negative reaction to refugee resettlement, Mahoney had this to say:

"A lot of times we have people who are fearful. I would ask them to get more educated on the issue and find out what's really going on.

"A lot of us immigrated from across the way," Mahoney added