Jennifer Brooks
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Minnesota’s Pope County has resettled one refugee in the past 10 years.

This is Trump Country, a bright patchwork of farms, lakes, rolling prairie and towns with names like Starbuck. In 2016, Donald Trump carried Pope County with 60% of the vote.

Refugees are welcome in Pope County.

The vote was unanimous.

“Hey, Gordy,” a woman at the post office greeted Pope County Commission Chairman Gordy Wagner on Friday. “When are those refugees coming?”

“What?” Wagner asked, confused.

Pope County hasn’t had a role in refugee resettlement since the Vietnam War, when local churches banded together to sponsor five families. They all eventually moved on to warmer states, but Wagner has heard that the kids come back sometimes to visit the teachers who helped them learn English.

But this year, the Trump administration decided to give states and counties veto power over refugee resettlement and gave them barely a month to make their choice.

They could vote no, like Beltrami County did on Jan. 7. They could do nothing, which would ban refugee resettlement within their borders by default. Or they could vote yes. Every year, they’d face the same vote again.

No refugees have been resettled in Pope County in the past five years, and there were no plans to resettle anyone in 2020.

But when the Pope County Board met on Jan. 7, the vote was a swift, uncontested yes.

Weeks later, some still weren’t clear on what the board had said yes to.

“I thought refugees were coming,” the woman at the post office told Wagner. “Eleven hundred of them.”

That many newcomers would double the population of Starbuck. There aren’t enough houses, jobs or classrooms to squeeze another 1,100 people into a county of 11,000.

Which is why nobody was actually planning to resettle 1,100 refugees in Pope County. That was just a lie making the rounds on social media.

Wagner says he gets more calls and e-mails praising the vote than condemning it. And when he hears from someone who doesn’t think refugees are welcome here, he doesn’t back down.

“I go to church,” he told one upset neighbor. “I’m not going to turn my back on my fellow man.”

A week after Pope and two dozen other Minnesota counties took a stand, a federal judge blocked the executive order. Relieved county boards canceled planned votes on refugees.

But the debate over refugees didn’t end when the votes stopped.

Counties still have to ask themselves:

Are refugees welcome here?

Or are we some sort of Beltrami County?

No one will ever look at Beltrami the same way again.

There are 87 counties in Minnesota and none of them asked Washington for veto power over refugee resettlement.

“It’s extremely divisive,” said Matt Hilgart, government relations manager for the Association of Minnesota Counties. “Especially for county boards, who don’t necessarily have these conversations on a day-to-day basis, whose agendas and board actions … aren’t really mapped out for these huge conversations on international policy.”

County boards have potholes to patch, appointments to approve, and a line of angry residents waiting to argue about neighborhood zoning changes.

But some are trying to use this as a teachable moment. Pope County isn’t the only place being bombarded with Facebook hoaxes and phantom refugees.

In Marshall, Minn., last week, more than 200 people crowded into a public hearing organized by Lyon County commissioners. They listened as officials explained how refugee resettlement works and met neighbors who arrived as refugees.

“I’m a first-generation college student, I’m the eldest in my family of four and obviously I’m pro-refugee because that’s how I’m here,” Fadumo Ismail, whose family found a home in Lyon County in 1993, told a Marshall Radio reporter who covered the event. “People should know that we’re not here to mooch off the government or anything like that.”

If you’d like to learn more about the newest Minnesotans, visit the Immigrant Law Center’s website at ilcm.org/latest-news/refugees-in-minnesota-quick-facts.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008

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