FARIBAULT, MINN. – In her years of selling burgers and omelets in the heart of downtown Faribault, Janna Viscomi has seen changes she never expected.
Somali immigrants now run a restaurant, grocery and home health care business one block from the family restaurant and grill she operates with her husband, the kind of place where regulars come for their morning coffee and frank conversation about the world’s problems.
The speed of those changes — the city’s black population tripled between 2000 and 2010 — has left her feeling anxious, especially when the talk turns to the costs of helping new arrivals to this Rice County city of 23,000 people, about an hour south of the Twin Cities.
For Viscomi, the new travel ban ordered by President Donald Trump that suspends refugee resettlement for 120 days and blocks entry for 90 days for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries comes as mostly welcome news.
“I think slowing things down would be good,” she said this week, taking a short break after the lunch rush. “I don’t want to see families separated, but in the other regard, there needs to be somebody saying, ‘Hey, Let’s breathe here. Let’s breathe.’ ”
In the past week, Trump’s order has sparked mass demonstrations in cities nationwide, caused confusion and confrontations at airports and drawn rebukes both subtle and direct from major U.S. businesses such as Anheuser-Busch and Ford Motor Co.
Yet in other places, such as Faribault, the move has been welcomed by residents who feel the cost and pace of immigration is too much too fast. Trump won Faribault’s precincts with 50.4 percent of the vote in November, compared with 41.5 percent for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Faribault, like other small- to medium-sized cities throughout Minnesota in recent years, has seen its mostly European ancestry make room for new arrivals from Cambodia, Laos, Mexico, Central America and Somalia.
In many places, it’s the food processing plants that draw immigrants eager for work. It’s no different here, where the Jennie-O Turkey Store operates.
The city’s population changed from 90 percent white in 2000 to 83 percent white 10 years later, with the black population rising from about 560 people to 1,775, according to U.S. Census figures. The trend has slowed somewhat in recent years, but continues, according to recent census estimates.
The changes are impossible to miss in Faribault’s historic downtown, where 19th-century brick buildings decorated with the occasional fleur-de-lis line the main strip with businesses such as Bernie’s Grill, a dress shop and an antiques emporium stuffed with grandfather clocks, vintage dolls, china and books.
Since Trump signed the executive order, some people say they feel more tension in the town, but Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen said he’s heard no reports of any physical threats. He directed his officers to keep up regular patrols of the Somali community’s mosque, a one-story office building at the edge of town that was purchased in 2013.
Viscomi, the restaurant and grill owner, said she’s aware that her opinion on immigration isn’t shared by everyone in town.
As a member of the Faribault City Council, she’s often in front of the public. Sometimes she feels like she’s being unfairly targeted for asking questions about immigration, she said.
“We’re not bad people; we’re realistic people,” she said.
The Somali people are nice, said Nona Boyes, the owner of a local antiques shop, but their arrival brought a culture so vastly different from anything most people in Faribault were accustomed to that conflicts arose from the most ordinary things.
The oral tradition in Somali culture meant it wasn’t uncommon for men to group together on city sidewalks for lengthy talks, she said. Some non-Somali women felt intimidated, she said, especially if they felt that the Somali men weren’t making way for a pedestrian.
“Some people are scared to come downtown,” she said.
Driving habits have become another sore spot for longtime locals, who say there’s anecdotal evidence that the new arrivals are causing more property damage and fender benders than non-Somalis.
As if to underscore Boyes’ point, repair work continued on Central Avenue this week at a storefront that was heavily damaged in August when an elderly Somali man accidentally drove into the building. He had taken medication at a doctor’s office earlier that day and hit the gas pedal when he meant to push the brake.
Boyes said the reality in Faribault is that Somalis and non-Somalis live mostly separate lives here, with Somali businesses catering to their own. That’s not true of younger people, though.
“The younger people in school, they’re crossing over,” she said. “They will intermesh. It’s going to be OK.”
Her neighbor on main street, Frank Marzario, runs a pawnshop. It’s his latest business after an entrepreneurial career that once included a string of check cashing businesses in the Twin Cities and a steakhouse in Faribault. At the pawnshop this week, Marzario said people mostly get along.
“We need to have a better vetting process but a Muslim ban is not the perfect answer,” he said.
Living with uncertainty
Across the street at a Somali business, the Banadir Restaurant & Grocery, several Somali men ate lunch as an overhead television tuned to CNN played a White House news conference.
One of the men, Mahdi Ali, said he voted for Trump. A few months ago, he said, he liked what he was hearing from candidate Trump.
The talk of bringing more jobs and fighting terrorists resonated with Ali, a Somalian immigrant who works at the Jennie-O plant and whose life was upended by terrorism in his home country.
His feelings changed almost immediately after the new president suspended the refugee resettlement program that has been a lifeline for Ali and others fleeing the war consuming Somalia.
“Now [Trump] attacks Muslims, and you have to know that Muslims and terrorists are not the same thing,” Ali said. Watching the news, he said everyone is just following along to see what comes next because no one knows.
That’s the uncertainty that most Somalis living here are feeling after the executive order came down, said Mukhtar Budul, the manager of a home health care business.
Now 29, Budul escaped poverty, war and an uncertain future when he came to the United States in 2009 after spending most of his life in a refugee camp in Kenya.
Some of his relatives still live there, but he doesn’t have the heart to tell them what he thinks could soon happen: a permanent ban on refugees from Somalia.
“We don’t know what’s going to be next, honestly,” he said.
Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747