In Northland, refugee issue divides, simmers

Carlton County won't take up the issue, but St. Louis County remains poised to take a May 26 vote.

Members of the public crowd into the St. Louis County Board chambers Jan. 7 in Duluth prior to the board addressing the issue of refugee resettlement consent. The board tabled the issue until May 26. (Clint Austin /
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For some, the issue of refugee resettlement consent came and went, ending when a Maryland judge froze President Donald Trump's order which gave counties the authority to choose whether they would accept refugees.

But in reality, the issue lingers and is rearing its head with some frequency throughout the Northland.

In Cloquet in February, a crowded meeting resulted in a clash between opponents and backers of resettlement . Last week, a Grand Rapids human rights officer resigned following a series of resettlement-related outcomes, including an Itasca County-based taxpayer alliance group decrying the cost of refugees.

For the neighboring St. Louis County Board, a consent vote remains on the table for May 26. The topic has elicited numerous audience speakers during its meetings throughout the year to date, including several more in Hibbing last week.

One recent audience member, Christine Colbenson, is a St. Louis County child-protection worker who came to the country in 2000 — as an immigrant and not a refugee. She spoke at the St. Louis County Board meeting Feb. 11 in Duluth.


“We don’t come here to destroy the country,” Colbenson said. “We come here for opportunities and we work hard.”

The notion that refugee resettlement consent is over because of a judge’s ruling has not been the case. Instead, it’s an issue that has hung like fog and revealed divides within Northeastern Minnesota.

Bill Dian, of Wrenshall, was the organizer of the meeting in Cloquet, where police and Cloquet City Councilor Lara Wilkinson kept peace amid a volatile atmosphere.

“I look at refugee resettlement as not doing them a big favor,” Dian said. “No. 1, we take people out of their country.”

Dian illustrated how a lot of dissent for resettlement is articulated — the reverse idea that it’s harmful to the refugees themselves, or harmful to American citizens who are also in need of community and governmental support.

But by definition, a refugee is on the run and no longer welcome in their own country. Whether fleeing persecution, war or even neglect in the case of something such as widespread famine, refugees flee their homes because they do not believe they have a choice to stay, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.


To hear Jennifer McCleary, University of Minnesota Duluth associate professor of social work, tell it, what’s lost in the refugee argument is their resilience.

“What’s interesting about the narrative is that they’re talking about refugees as though it’s an isolated moment in time and never think about them as growing, integrating and becoming part of their city,” McCleary said.

The typical refugee family leaves, say, a village in conflict and spends months traveling through jungle, desert or other terrain to land in a border camp, in which they might spend a large chunk of their lifetimes inside as they await resettlement.

“They are resilient, resourceful, intelligent — they are fighting to keep their families safe,” McCleary said. “We don’t talk about the strength it takes, or that the average length of time in a camp is 10 years.”

McCleary studies the Karen people, some of which resettled in the Twin Cities following persecution by the government of Myanmar (previously known as Burma). She is researching how the Karen people have self-advocated to help build culturally relevant systems to address alcoholism and drug abuse in their community.

Of the record 70 million displaced people in the world, 25 million are refugees awaiting a new home — but they yearn for the one they left behind, the UMD associate professor said.

“Most people don’t want to resettle,” McCleary said. "They want to go home.”

A recent poll showed that 59% of Minnesotans support resettlement in their communities. Conversely, new Anti-Defamation League data reveals a widespread use of white supremacist propaganda, including a 170% increase in Minnesota in 2019 compared to 2018.


“I’m not racist or supremacist,” Dian said. “It’s not that simple. People I hang around with are not hate people or I wouldn’t be there. That’s not who I am.”

Dian is retired and said he moved back to Carlton County to be near grandchildren. He’s not likely to see his local county board address the issue.

“We’re not going to take it up,” Carlton County Coordinator Dennis Generau said. “The judge’s order negates any need for the board to take any action on that request by Trump and makes it a moot point.”

St. Louis County no longer has the luxury of avoiding the topic. Because it tabled a vote in January , the issue lingers until a vote May 26 in Buhl.

Commissioner Frank Jewell said he hopes the loop can be closed sooner than that.

“At some point, I hope one of the members that voted to table will bring this off the table and we’ll vote on it,” Jewell said Feb. 11 during committee of the whole. “Sooner rather than later, so that we get it made clear that we are a welcoming community.”

Most speakers in recent St. Louis County Board meetings have favored refugee resettlement.

The Interfaith Community on Migrant Justice sprang up following the Trump Administration’s family separation practice on the southern border with Mexico. Made up of numerous churches in Duluth, the group told the News Tribune that the resettlement issue was never practical.

“The county's decision on this issue was never going to make much of a difference logistically,” it said in a written statement, citing the last refugee settled in St. Louis County was in 2011. “However, we still believe it is important for the commissioners to vote 'yes' on this issue to send the message that St. Louis County is a welcoming and open place.”

To date, none of the commissioners that voted to table the issue has moved to change the timing of the vote.

Kim Maki, head of the civil division of the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office, said there is nothing preventing them from doing so. Just the same, there’s no rush either.

“When the judge granted the injunction, it froze any enforcement of the order for the entire country and for the duration of the lawsuit,” Maki said. “The Trump administration can come in and appeal that decision, but until they do and unless they do that injunction will stay in place however long the case lasts.”

Until then, counties across the country are under the old rules, in which counties are informed by the federal government of refugee placements, but have no authority to approve or dissuade resettlement.

“One of the arguments is that this is the Trump administration making some effort to politicize a very split issue,” Generau, representing Carlton County, said. “It’s an issue a lot of people feel strongly about nationally. It’s an opportunity for people to get worked up. But it’s not something most county boards are interested in doing.”

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