VIRGINIA — A day on the Iron Range that started with residents protesting refugees ended Tuesday with the St. Louis County Board declining to vote on consent to allow refugee resettlement.

Instead, weighted by a majority of four Iron Range and rural-most commissioners, the issue was sent back to administration — to return at a time when the consent issue was no longer tied up in federal court.

“This executive order is doing what it was intended to do,” Commissioner Keith Musolf said. “It’s divided us and divided our constituents.”

Musolf, Keith Nelson, Mike Jugovich and Paul McDonald voted to return the issue to administration after hearing from nearly 100 community members across several hours of public testimony.

County Attorney Mark Rubin seemed to inform the decision by telling commissioners, “There is no urgency. The law is still the same today as when President Trump issued (the consent order).”

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Todd Jacobson holds a "Don't Tread On Me" flag outside the county Government Services Center in Virginia Tuesday morning. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Todd Jacobson holds a "Don't Tread On Me" flag outside the county Government Services Center in Virginia Tuesday morning. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The issue of refugee resettlement consent sprang up last winter, after President Donald Trump issued an executive order requiring counties to consent to resettlement. A federal judge later blocked the order, nullifying the need for boards to act. As it stands, only the federal government can place refugees.

Duluth-based commissioners appealed to their colleagues on the board to make a decision, but were voted down twice, 4-3, as the process wended its way through a grueling day filled with impassioned pleas and fiery rhetoric on both sides of the issue.

“I thought this would be an easy vote for the board,” Beth Olson said in a prelude to a 10-minute prepared statement that included the line: “This isn’t charity; we need (refugees) as much as they need us.”

Olson said her heart broke over the "hatred and racism" revealed by the issue since January.

Commissioner Frank Jewell of Duluth said returning the vote to administration was the equivalent of relegating it to a “black box.”

“This is one of the most challenging things to come up during my time on the board,” he said.

Commissioner Keith Nelson spoke to his constituents’ angst about the issue of consent as most of the day’s Iron Range callers to the online meeting were opposed.

“I hear this conversation all the time from down (in Duluth) that it doesn’t affect your taxes,” he said. “Folks, my federal taxes come out of my back pocket.”

Dozens of protesters appeared outside the Virginia Government Services Center to start the day, rallying against refugee resettlement consent.

"I believe we need to take care of the people in St. Louis County first," Julie Buria, a Mountain Iron resident, told the News Tribune. "When people come to our county or our state we want them to come legally and go through the process. The taxpayers can't afford any more burden."

Tabled once in January leading into Tuesday’s meeting, Olson predicted there was “a good chance” the board would be at it again in the future.

Board Chair Mike Jugovich challenged false assertions among the public comments, with some callers confusing illegal immigrants with refugees and repeating unfounded rumors about a surge of refugees coming to the Iron Range. He described how he’s been working across the past four months to change false narratives about refugees — legally identified people who flee their country due to violence and oppression.

“Refugees are welcome here regardless — we do not have the ability to stop it,” Jugovich said. “I am disappointed we didn’t get our message out enough.”

Only refugees with family members already in the county could be lawfully placed in the county. Only one refugee was resettled in St. Louis County in a seven-year span through 2018.

Many callers believed the board should take care of citizens first, and were concerned how the county would support refugees given the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve heard refugees are unvetted and illegal and that’s not the case,” Jugovich said. “It’s important we move forward and that we understand fact from fiction. Getting information from Facebook? Epic fail. There are avenues for quality, factual information.”

Charlotte Frantz, a retired minister representing the local Interfaith Committee for Migrant Justice made up of several area church leaders, said after the decision: "I believe that the decision to send the refugee resettlement resolution to administration is an acknowledgement of our deep division. I am sad that we, as a society, are so fearful and self-protective that we cannot extend basic hospitality to the most vetted, most resilient of immigrants."

Steve Kuchera contributed to this report.

This story was updated at 8:25 p.m. May 26 with additional comments. It was originally posted at 11:30 a.m. May 26.