FARGO-Doug Burgum isn't backing away from saying North Dakota should consider legal action against the federal government so state and local officials can have a role in refugee resettlement, but the GOP gubernatorial candidate said the issue is not one of his priorities.
Some state and local leaders have complained that they have no say in determining whether refugees are resettled in their communities. In Fargo, City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn has pushed for detailed information tallying the costs refugee settlement imposes on local taxpayers for services, including social services, education and law enforcement.
Burgum first said suing the federal government is an "option that deserves consideration and debate" during the June primary campaign, a position he still holds, he told The Forum Editorial Board on Tuesday, Oct. 11.
"I think it's an option that needs to be on the table," Burgum said of possible legal action against the federal government, adding it is "not a decision to be made lightly."
The North Dakota Department of Human Services withdrew from the refugee resettlement program in 2011, thus yielding any oversight of the process. The federal government then made Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota the refugee resettlement coordinator in the state.
"The state ought to have some say in the costs that are placed on them," Burgum said.
On the other hand, he said, the United States is a nation "built on immigration," and some businesses benefit from hiring immigrant workers, including refugees.
Still, Burgum said, "There's got to be a check and balance" in the placement of refugees into communities.
"I think it's really encouraging to see the dialogue," he said. "Let's get the data in the room." It's likely the Legislature will have a discussion about the state's role and the role of Lutheran Social Services in refugee resettlement, Burgum added.
"It's not what I'm running on," he said of the refugee resettlement issue. "It's not a priority."
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Burgum's rivals in the three-way gubernatorial race differed in their views on refugee resettlement.
Marvin Nelson, the Democratic-NPL candidate, said refugees should be viewed as contributing to the state's workforce, but acknowledged they can impose costs in the early years of resettlement.
"It really fundamentally is a form of economic development," he said. "Fargo benefits today from the refugees who came in the '90s."
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In North Dakota, refugees primarily are concentrated in Fargo and West Fargo, Nelson said, "which makes Fargo a lucky spot," since many areas face a "slow death" from a lack of workers.
Marty Riske, the Libertarian candidate, said the debate about the pros and cons of refugees is hampered by a "considerable undercurrent of political correctness." He said he is still studying the issue.
Because of Piepkorn's prodding, Fargo is finally able to examine the costs associated with taking in refugees, Riske said.
"That was never divulged in the beginning," he said. "We're only now beginning to open the books on this."