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Historically low number of refugees resettled in North Dakota in 2021 fiscal year

During the 2021 fiscal year, which ended in September, the United States took in about 11,400 refugees — the lowest total since the 1980 Refugee Act took effect.

PHOTO: Afghan refugees
Evacuees from Afghanistan depart from a C-17 Globemaster III and board a transportation bus at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Aug. 22, 2021.
U.S. Air Force / Senior Airman Jan K. Valle / Handout via Reuters
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BISMARCK — North Dakota took in just 35 refugees during the last fiscal year, marking a low point for the state in the resettlement of those fleeing violence, persecution or natural disaster.

Over the last two decades, North Dakota has become one of the country's leaders in refugee resettlements per capita , but the COVID-19 pandemic and the slowdown of refugee programs by former President Donald Trump's administration led to a significant drop in recent arrivals, said Dan Hannaher, North Dakota field director for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the state's lone resettlement agency.

During the 2021 fiscal year, which ended in September, the United States took in about 11,400 refugees — the lowest total since the 1980 Refugee Act took effect. The 35 refugees who arrived in North Dakota during the last year are the fewest since at least 1997, according to LIRS data.

Federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security require several in-person interviews with refugees outside the U.S. before allowing them to resettle on American soil, but the COVID-19 pandemic put many of those operations on hold, said State Refugee Coordinator Holly Triska-Dally.

Hannaher added that the Trump administration "wasn't highly motivated to have robust refugee resettlement" and set a historically low cap on refugees admissions last year, limiting the number of arrivals in North Dakota.

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Triska-Dally said the demise of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota , which operated refugee resettlement programs until it dissolved early this year, didn't have much to do with the low number of arrivals in 2021.

The refugees who came to the state last year include 11 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 10 from Syria, seven from Sudan, five from Afghanistan and two from Somalia, Hannaher said.

Fewer than three months into the 2022 fiscal year, the state has already tied the total number of arrivals from 2021, with 26 refugees from Afghanistan, five from Iraq and four from Congo landing in North Dakota since Oct. 1.

The easing of some COVID-19 constraints and the implementation of pro-refugee policies by President Joe Biden's administration has Hannaher hopeful that North Dakota, and particularly the Fargo area, will become home to about 250 refugees during the current fiscal year.

However, regular resettlement operations are on pause as the state honors its commitment to take in 49 Afghan refugees who recently fled the Asian country following a Taliban takeover, Hannaher said. Triska-Dally noted she doesn't foresee much resettlement of refugees from outside of Afghanistan until February or March.

She said refugees can contribute to the economy by working in-demand jobs and patronizing local businesses. The refugee coordinator said she receives frequent calls from employers who want hire refugees and everyday people who want to help recent arrivals find their footing.

The number of refugees resettled in the state could rise if there's significant backing from the community, Triska-Dally said, adding that North Dakotans can reach out to their lawmakers to express support for the refugee program.

More than 8,700 refugees resettled in North Dakota between 1997 and 2000, according to LIRS data. During that span, the legal immigrants came from more than 40 different countries, with most hailing from Bhutan, Bosnia, Somalia and Iraq. About three-quarters of those who arrived settled in the Fargo metro area.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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