FARGO — The Cass County Commission on Monday, Dec. 2, voted unanimously to let Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota continue its refugee resettlement program in the county, which essentially involves the cities of Fargo and West Fargo.
Before the board voted, it heard from representatives from a number of community organizations, including the Fargo Human Relations Commission and the Fargo Youth Initiative, as well as a number of individuals, with all speaking in support of the refugee resettlement program.
Chad Peterson, who took over as chairman of the county board Monday, acknowledged prior to voting to allow the resettlement program to continue operating that he had been critical of the program in the past — mainly, he said, because of the number of refugees who historically have come to North Dakota, which has often been in the hundreds each year.
Peterson said his earlier concerns arose from worry that local resources were not adequate to support the number of newcomers arriving in the region.
Commissioner Mary Scherling, who like Peterson voted in support of letting LSS continue its resettlement work, stressed that in the future she would like to see a better effort made toward providing county officials with accurate information regarding the program.
The county board had to vote on whether LSS could continue resettlement efforts locally because of a September executive order issued by President Donald Trump, which stated that resettlement efforts had to receive permission from state and local governments for new refugees to be allowed.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announced in mid-November that the state would continue to receive refugees as long as local governments agree to it. "The governor believes it should be a local decision," Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said at the time the announcement was made.
There has been some confusion nationwide on the question of which local authorities need to give their approval, but it's now generally understood that county governments are the local agencies to decide that question, said Shirley Dykshoorn, LSS vice president for senior and humanitarian services.
Dykshoorn attended the meeting by phone and outlined her agency's efforts to resettle refugees, as well as the economic and humanitarian benefits of resettlement.
Dykshoorn said LSS assists with resettlement in the North Dakota counties of Burleigh, Cass and Grand Forks, though she added the agency also helps some individuals resettle in the Minnesota city of Moorhead.
Before the meeting, Dykshoorn said that between Oct. 1, 2017, and Sept. 31, 2018, 100 refugees settled in Fargo and eight settled in West Fargo. During the same period, 41 refugees settled in Grand Forks and 22 settled in Bismarck.
She added that for the federal fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 2018, and ended Sept. 31, 2019, 95 refugees settled in Fargo, five settled in Grand Forks and approximately 24 settled in Bismarck.
Those recent numbers mark a steep decline in the number of refugees settling in North Dakota.
Between Oct. 1, 2016, and Sept. 31, 2017, for example, about 421 refugees settled in the state, and between 2007 and 2017 North Dakota consistently took in more than 400 refugees every year, with the majority of them settling in Fargo, according to an LSS report.
Policy decisions made by the Trump administration are often cited as reasons why the number of refugees entering the country has declined in recent years, including Trump's 2017 travel ban and tougher vetting of those attempting to resettle in the U.S.