"No one ever asks taxpayers: 'Do you want to support this?' "
That's what Kim Crockett, then vice president of the Center of the American Experiment, told the Pioneer Press about refugee resettlement for a 2018 article on the subject. She added: "When we question this, we are told that is mean-spirited, bigoted and xenophobic."
Following an executive order by President Donald Trump in September, the first assertion can no longer be made. The second — touching on motives behind the questioning — is up for debate.
Under the order, local officials must now opt in before refugees are resettled in their communities. In Minnesota, several of the jurisdictions where resettlement typically occurs have done so, as did Gov. Tim Walz on behalf of the state as a whole. But this week, one Minnesota jurisdiction went on record as visibly closing its doors, even though by default its silence on the matter would have had the same effect.
Tuesday's 3-2 decision in Beltrami County, where no resettlement has occurred in recent years, followed a meeting characterized by jeers, shouts and accusations among more than 150 people attending — most of them opposed to allowing refugees. According to Minnesota Public Radio, Board Member Reed Olson — who supported allowing resettlements — said he brought the issue before the board because "it would have been cowardly" to let it pass without taking a stand. The result, according to Olson, via KSTP? "It's an embarrassing day for Beltrami County."
Two other counties — St. Louis and Stearns — tabled votes on Tuesday in pursuit of additional information. It's wise for officials to learn about any direct impacts on their budgets. But a better overall understanding also seems needed, not just for decisionmakers but for the citizens prodding them. The good news is that it already can be found in the public realm:
What's the difference between a refugee and an undocumented immigrant?
"A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home because of war, violence or persecution, often without warning," writes the International Rescue Committee, an advocacy group. "They are unable to return home unless and until conditions in their native lands are safe for them again." That's consistent with definitions in U.S. and international law.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees screens applicants to determine whether they qualify. Additional vetting takes place under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. The approval process can take up to two years.
Who determines where refugees go?
Nonprofit resettlement agencies, working with the State Department, determine where each refugee will initially be resettled in the United States. The State Department writes that factors include the presence of friends or family members and opportunities for employment.
In Minnesota, five agencies funded through the federal Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration provide initial reception and placement services for the first 30 to 90 days, according to the state Department of Health. They are Arrive Ministries, Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota, the International Institute of Minnesota, Lutheran Social Service, and the Minnesota Council of Churches.
As news articles have pointed out, once initially settled, refugees can move anywhere in the country, like anyone else.
How many come to Minnesota each year? Has that number changed much?
In 2019, according to the Department of Human Services (DHS), the state took in 775 such people, the largest numbers of whom arrived from Myanmar (362) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (145). The annual totals have decreased significantly in the last 15 years, though — especially during the Trump era. "Minnesota has the highest number of refugees per capita nationwide, according to the U.S. Census and refugee-support agencies," the Pioneer Press reported in its 2018 article. "With 2 percent of the nation's population, Minnesota has 13 percent of its refugees." However, the highest recent total given by DHS — 5,010 in 2005 — represented less than 0.1% of the state's population that year.
Which counties, or regions of the state, take in the most?
Over the past five years, refugees have resettled in 25 Minnesota counties, MPR reported. (Its coverage, which can be viewed at tinyurl.com/mpr-refugees, includes a map.) The Star Tribune reported that Ramsey County has resettled the largest number during that period (4,215), followed by Hennepin (1,345), Stearns (662), Anoka (430) and Olmsted counties (377).
Has anyone really looked at what refugees cost and contribute?
The State Department provides refugees with a loan to travel to the U.S., which they must repay, and supplies resettlement agencies a one-time sum per refugee to finance their first 30 to 90 days in the country. Estimates of ongoing costs to taxpayers are harder to pin down. One study, by the Center for Immigration Studies and focused on Middle Eastern refugees, estimated $64,370 per refugee over the first five years, the bulk of which was not borne by local governments.
In addition, refugees can immediately begin working, and they must pay taxes. A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that refugees who entered the U.S. as adults from 2010-14 paid, on average, $21,000 more in taxes than they got in any kind of welfare payments. A 2017 Notre Dame study said that after 20 years, refugees are more likely than native-born residents to be receiving welfare and food-support payments — and are also more likely to be employed. A 2017 University of Minnesota report, sounding a theme familiar to readers of Star Tribune Opinion, notes that the state is likely to depend on immigrants in general for labor force growth.