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Outrage, fear, compassion punctuate refugee talk at Fargo City Commission meeting

FARGO -- In a voice full of outrage, City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn demanded why the city didn't have a say in how many refugees are settled here. It's a "huge decision" made by Lutheran Social Services, tasked by the federal government with ref...

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Jessica Thomasson, director of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, speaks to the Fargo City Commission Monday, Oct. 10, 2016, explaining some of the expenses and procedures of refugee resettlement in the Fargo area. Dave Wallis / The Forum
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FARGO - In a voice full of outrage, City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn demanded why the city didn't have a say in how many refugees are settled here. It's a "huge decision" made by Lutheran Social Services, tasked by the federal government with refugee resettlement in North Dakota, that creates a burden on local taxpayers, he complained at the commission's Monday, Oct. 10, meeting. But the argument soon changed from one of cost to one of insecurity, with Piepkorn invoking the stabbings at a St. Cloud, Minn., mall in mid-September. The attacker was a Somali refugee who had moved to Fargo as a 1-year-old. He told an LSS official that the group must ensure such attacks do not happen again. Commissioner John Strand, who took the exact opposite tack, said Piepkorn's questions are worth discussing. But he said lending a hand to refugees escaping danger in their homelands is also worthwhile. "This is ministry. This is compassion. This is reaching out from your heart. This is sharing our abundance with others in need." The topic of discussion was a report by city staff explaining how much refugees cost taxpayers, as requested by Piepkorn two weeks ago. But the answer - not as much as many think - failed to satisfy the commissioner who vowed to find "every penny" spent on refugees. In the audience was a diverse group of 30 or 40 interested members of the public, including refugees or immigrants and their friends. They watched the discussion but didn't ask to speak. 3 questions Piepkorn posed three questions to LSS CEO Jessica Thomasson, beginning a brief but intense dialogue: One, how much is paid for each refugee who settles in Fargo-Moorhead? Two, who decides how many are settled here? And three, does LSS have some legal responsibility for how they behave when they move here? Thomasson spoke only about funds the agency receives or passes on, including $1,125 per person to help with startup expenses, such as paying a deposit on an apartment; cash assistance of $335 per person per month or $685 for a family of four; and $950 that LSS keeps to pay for services it provides to the refugee. VIDEO: Police arrest male after violent incident in south Fargo According to a report from Dan Mahli, the city's community development administrator, the city has two staff members involved in cultural diversity in general and $28,000 for several diversity programs, one aimed at New Americans. The federal government chips in $15,000. Fargo police do not consider refugees more prone to crime than other residents and no cost was provided. The report also includes costs by other local governments, such as the $9.1 million Cass County spends on social services. Refugees and immigrants make up 10 to 12 percent of the caseload. LSS bases the number of refugees it settles here on what partner agencies think is viable and it consults with those partners at least four times a year, Thomasson said. Piepkorn interrupted to complain: "That's unacceptable. To think that someone else is determining the number of refugees that we can handle. Their decisions impact our budget, the schools, the parks, and on and on. As far as I know, we're not included. Are any of the city commission included?" "I believe the invitation goes either through city staff or one of the elected offices," Thomasson replied. "As far as I know, we've had not participation," Piepkorn said. "To me, to think city leaders are not involved in this. This is a huge decision made by you, that's encumbering us."

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Jessica Thomasson, director of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, speaks to the Fargo City Commission Monday, Oct. 10, 2016, explaining some of the expenses and procedures of refugee resettlement in the Fargo area. Dave Wallis / The Forum

Legal residents Thomasson continued to answer the third question, saying that LSS doesn't track refugees for the rest of their lives or otherwise act as their custodian because once the federal government accepts them they're considered "legal residents" with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. "I hope everyone is hearing what she's saying: They're refugees and when they come here they have all the rights of a legal citizen?" Piepkorn asked. West Fargo woman accused of throwing cats off balcony "Residents," said Thomasson. "They're not citizens until they can be naturalized in five years." Permanent residents, or holders of green cards, are entitled to live and work in the United States, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Besides refugees, relatives of U.S. citizens and people with certain kinds of jobs may also get green cards. Earlier in the meeting, Thomasson had explained that LSS doesn't determine who is accepted into the United States. Federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does. Many refugees come from war-torn lands such as Iraq and Syria, or countries where minorities are persecuted, such as Bhutan and Burma. ND native all in for Norwegian reality show Mayor Tim Mahoney said it's important to note that refugees are a good source of labor for area businesses struggling to find enough workers. Thomasson said a workforce study found the greatest need is for unskilled labor because those jobs aren't wanted by most area residents, who have training for medium to high-skilled labor. 'Not fine and dandy' Piepkorn said he still wants staff to do more research on the true cost of providing services for refugees. Mahoney told him the city already has that information, referring apparently to Mahli's report. Enbridge oil pipelines in Minnesota among five targeted by environmental activists Piepkorn angrily disagreed: "The credibility of these people," he said pointing in Thomasson's and Mahli's direction before trailing off. "I want to have accountants find out. People are telling us everything is fine and dandy. I'm sorry, everything is not fine and dandy. What happened in St. Cloud is not fine and dandy. I don't want that to happen again." "I hope you're going to make a commitment to that," he said looking at Thomasson. "You're doing everything you can so that won't happen again. And so this is a serious issue and I want serious time spent on this, minute by minute, penny by penny." Commissioners agreed in the end to have the Human Relations Commission take a look and report by February.FARGO - In a voice full of outrage, City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn demanded why the city didn't have a say in how many refugees are settled here.It's a "huge decision" made by Lutheran Social Services, tasked by the federal government with refugee resettlement in North Dakota, that creates a burden on local taxpayers, he complained at the commission's Monday, Oct. 10, meeting.But the argument soon changed from one of cost to one of insecurity, with Piepkorn invoking the stabbings at a St. Cloud, Minn., mall in mid-September. The attacker was a Somali refugee who had moved to Fargo as a 1-year-old.He told an LSS official that the group must ensure such attacks do not happen again.Commissioner John Strand, who took the exact opposite tack, said Piepkorn's questions are worth discussing. But he said lending a hand to refugees escaping danger in their homelands is also worthwhile. "This is ministry. This is compassion. This is reaching out from your heart. This is sharing our abundance with others in need."The topic of discussion was a report by city staff explaining how much refugees cost taxpayers, as requested by Piepkorn two weeks ago. But the answer - not as much as many think - failed to satisfy the commissioner who vowed to find "every penny" spent on refugees.In the audience was a diverse group of 30 or 40 interested members of the public, including refugees or immigrants and their friends. They watched the discussion but didn't ask to speak.3 questionsPiepkorn posed three questions to LSS CEO Jessica Thomasson, beginning a brief but intense dialogue: One, how much is paid for each refugee who settles in Fargo-Moorhead? Two, who decides how many are settled here? And three, does LSS have some legal responsibility for how they behave when they move here?Thomasson spoke only about funds the agency receives or passes on, including $1,125 per person to help with startup expenses, such as paying a deposit on an apartment; cash assistance of $335 per person per month or $685 for a family of four; and $950 that LSS keeps to pay for services it provides to the refugee.VIDEO: Police arrest male after violent incident in south FargoAccording to a report from Dan Mahli, the city's community development administrator, the city has two staff members involved in cultural diversity in general and $28,000 for several diversity programs, one aimed at New Americans. The federal government chips in $15,000. Fargo police do not consider refugees more prone to crime than other residents and no cost was provided. The report also includes costs by other local governments, such as the $9.1 million Cass County spends on social services. Refugees and immigrants make up 10 to 12 percent of the caseload.LSS bases the number of refugees it settles here on what partner agencies think is viable and it consults with those partners at least four times a year, Thomasson said.Piepkorn interrupted to complain: "That's unacceptable. To think that someone else is determining the number of refugees that we can handle. Their decisions impact our budget, the schools, the parks, and on and on. As far as I know, we're not included. Are any of the city commission included?""I believe the invitation goes either through city staff or one of the elected offices," Thomasson replied."As far as I know, we've had not participation," Piepkorn said. "To me, to think city leaders are not involved in this. This is a huge decision made by you, that's encumbering us."

2883906+piepkorn.png
Jessica Thomasson, director of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, speaks to the Fargo City Commission Monday, Oct. 10, 2016, explaining some of the expenses and procedures of refugee resettlement in the Fargo area. Dave Wallis / The Forum

Legal residentsThomasson continued to answer the third question, saying that LSS doesn't track refugees for the rest of their lives or otherwise act as their custodian because once the federal government accepts them they're considered "legal residents" with all the rights and responsibilities that entails."I hope everyone is hearing what she's saying: They're refugees and when they come here they have all the rights of a legal citizen?" Piepkorn asked.West Fargo woman accused of throwing cats off balcony"Residents," said Thomasson. "They're not citizens until they can be naturalized in five years."Permanent residents, or holders of green cards, are entitled to live and work in the United States, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Besides refugees, relatives of U.S. citizens and people with certain kinds of jobs may also get green cards.Earlier in the meeting, Thomasson had explained that LSS doesn't determine who is accepted into the United States. Federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does. Many refugees come from war-torn lands such as Iraq and Syria, or countries where minorities are persecuted, such as Bhutan and Burma.ND native all in for Norwegian reality showMayor Tim Mahoney said it's important to note that refugees are a good source of labor for area businesses struggling to find enough workers.Thomasson said a workforce study found the greatest need is for unskilled labor because those jobs aren't wanted by most area residents, who have training for medium to high-skilled labor.'Not fine and dandy'Piepkorn said he still wants staff to do more research on the true cost of providing services for refugees.Mahoney told him the city already has that information, referring apparently to Mahli's report.Enbridge oil pipelines in Minnesota among five targeted by environmental activistsPiepkorn angrily disagreed: "The credibility of these people," he said pointing in Thomasson's and Mahli's direction before trailing off. "I want to have accountants find out. People are telling us everything is fine and dandy. I'm sorry, everything is not fine and dandy. What happened in St. Cloud is not fine and dandy. I don't want that to happen again.""I hope you're going to make a commitment to that," he said looking at Thomasson. "You're doing everything you can so that won't happen again. And so this is a serious issue and I want serious time spent on this, minute by minute, penny by penny."Commissioners agreed in the end to have the Human Relations Commission take a look and report by February.

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