In a surprise turn Tuesday at its meeting in Duluth, the St. Louis County Board voted to table a vote until May on giving consent for refugee resettlement. The decision delays the county's response to an executive order issued by President Donald Trump in September that requires states and counties to consent or opt out of resettlement consideration.
As of June 1, refugees will not be placed in states and counties that do not provide written consent.
The vote was split among the mostly rural commissioners and the ones from Duluth, with Keith Nelson, Keith Musolf, Paul McDonald and Mike Jugovich approving the delay, while Duluth's Beth Olson, Frank Jewell and Patrick Boyle opposed. Jugovich, the 7th District commissioner based out of Hibbing, was installed as board president for 2020 at the meeting, and presided over the lengthy session.
The vote on consent was moved to the May 26 board meeting in Buhl.
McDonald explained the decision had been on "the fast track," and that the northernmost St. Louis County commissioners wanted it to slow down.
"It's my duty to make sure all constituents know the facts," McDonald, 4th District commissioner representing Ely, said.
McDonald added that the board would likely hold town halls and other forms of outreach to help residents understand nuances of refugee resettlement. Early in the meeting, a packed County Board room was given a detailed lesson on immigration and refugees by a state Department of Human Services resettlement expert. McDonald said that information was something all interested parties throughout the county would want to know.
McDonald heard pleas from audience members afterward to "do the right thing."
"I will," he told them.
The vote to delay elicited a confrontation between Nelson, the 6th District commissioner from Virginia, and both Olson and Jewell after the board adjourned for lunch. The tense interaction belied a day of congenial public input and ended with Nelson walking away holding up his hand between himself and the two Duluth commissioners.
"I'm furious; I'm absolutely furious," Olson, 3rd District commissioner representing West Duluth, said. "I am emboldened and impassioned to fight like hell."
Olson has led the effort to consent, saying there had been ample time and testimony to make a decision. She had wanted St. Louis County to be among the leaders in offering consent, but now the vote will come four business days ahead of Trump's deadline.
Jewell identified Nelson as orchestrating the delay.
"We're going to go up to Buhl, so that Keith can gather a whole bunch of people from Buhl," Jewell said. "I'm frustrated. We should have never delayed after making people wait for (so long)."
The vote followed almost three hours of morning public testimony, much of it in support of consent. Opposition to consent, about a third of the speakers, was mostly concerned about the cost to taxpayers.
Gary Werkhoven, of Duluth, distilled the faction that favored the delay and questioned what the plan was were there to ever be an influx of refugees.
"My heart really goes out to refugees," he said, "but I think this board really needs to think of the people here now."
Gary Boelhower, of Duluth, said he grew up poor and that his home's electricity and phone would be occasionally turned off. Still, he said, "My mother taught me there was always room at the table."
His sentiment crystallized impassioned testimony from the proponents for consent, including religious and social justice leaders, local Northland politicians, former sponsors of refugees, and one Northland refugee whose family was from Serbia and who lived his early life in an Austrian refugee camp, Fred Schumacher, of Gheen, Minn. He challenged some of the opposing notions being floated.
"This idea you're going to be footing the bill — forget it," he said. "We work harder than anybody."
More than 40 people rose to the dais. One woman, one of the day's last speakers, said she'd come from the Iron Range, where lots of people wanted to speak in opposition to consent, but were at work. County Administrator Kevin Gray seemed to confirm that fact by saying, "we've had a high, high response rate on this issue."
Refugees are an international designation of immigrants who are displaced by persecution, and events such as war, violence, famine or catastrophe. St. Louis County is a low-priority county for refugee replacement. Only refugees with family in the county are allowed to be placed here. Most of the state's refugees are concentrated in the Twin Cities, where there are specific, mostly religious-based, resettlement agencies.
The county had no resettled refugees among the 818 people placed statewide in 2018, only one in more than a half-dozen years, and none in the past five years.
Gov. Tim Walz notably issued state consent in December by saying, in part: “The inn is not full in Minnesota."