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Local View Column: Votes for refugee resettlement are votes for kindness, hospitality

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The crowd at the anti-refugee resettlement meeting nearly filled the 130 seat auditorium at the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College on Thursday. (Brady Slater / bslater@duluthnews.com)

In early February, at a town hall in Cloquet, community members gathered to discuss the resettlement of refugees. As the News Tribune reported, one woman in the crowd shouted, "We want legal refugees," to which another woman retorted, "Refugees are legal by definition."

It's true refugees are legal, and the legal title of “refugee” is not awarded lightly. But there are many misconceptions about who refugees are, how they get to the U.S., and how they will fit into our communities.

With the St. Louis County Board scheduled to vote May 26 on whether to consent to refugee resettlement, there are things to know.

Why is the county voting on refugees?

An executive order issued in September requires each county to opt-in to refugee resettlement. The order has been suspended because of an injunction, leading some counties to postpone their votes. Twenty-five Minnesota counties that had previously welcomed refugees were asked by resettlement organizations to vote early, by Jan. 21, to comply with funding deadlines. Of the 25 counties, 24 voted to continue resettling refugees in their communities.

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Who are the refugees?

Refugees living in the United States are heavily vetted. In order to receive asylum, refugees need to make their cases to judges. They need to prove, with documentation, that they fled their home countries because they were personally being persecuted because of their religion, race, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group and that their lives would be in danger if they returned home. Those refugees who are resettled from other countries (as opposed to requesting asylum at our borders) are among the world’s most vulnerable refugees; the UN resettlement agency only refers the most vulnerable to countries which have agreed to resettle refugees.

Resettlement to the U.S., when refugees are in other countries, takes more than two years and includes screenings by eight federal agencies including the FBI and State Department, three in-person interviews with the Department of Homeland Security, medical checks, fingerprinting, and another screening by Customs and Border Control at the airport once the refugees arrive in the U.S. If there is any doubt during the two-year resettlement process that refugees are a security threat, they are denied asylum.

Who are our refugees?

Last year, 22,000 refugees resettled in the United States with 891 refugees arriving in Minnesota.The largest group of refugees came from Myanmar, where 671,000 Rohingya people have fled since 2017. They left to escape violence and ethnic cleansing. The next largest groups were from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ukraine, and Somalia. The U.S. focuses on resettling the most vulnerable populations: women, at-risk children, the elderly, survivors of violence, and those with severe medical needs.

Who takes care of the refugees?

When refugees are placed in a Minnesota community, the Minnesota Department of Human Services and Minnesota-based organizations provide support for the first 90 days. The organizations help with job placements, cultural orientation, English classes, and access to reliable transportation. After five years, a refugee can go through the naturalization process to become a U.S. citizen.

How much do refugees cost?

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The federal government gives a one-time $925 grant to a local resettlement agency to help a refugee get on his or her feet. Refugees can work as soon as they arrive and are required to pay back the cost of their airline ticket. Refugees may receive cash assistance for their first eight months in the U.S. And while refugees often rely on state and federal assistance upon arrival, a 2017 study found that in the last decade refugees brought in $63 billion more in revenue to local, state, and federal governments than was spent supporting them.

Where will they live?

Local organizations like the International Institute of Minnesota and Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota work with local landlords to find housing for refugees. The same organizations help families navigate school registration. Though refugees may originally settle in Minnesota, they are free to move throughout the country like anyone else.

Why should my community vote to accept refugees?

Most refugees are women and children, the elderly, families, and survivors of violence who have been forced out of their homes because of situations out of their control. They need a new place to raise their families and want to contribute to our communities.

Having grown up in the northwoods, I’ve seen the countless ways our communities have come together to help those in need. By voting for resettlement, Minnesota affirms its nationwide reputation for kindness and hospitality, while making life a little bit easier for those who’ve had it the hardest.

Caitlin Flynn is a native of Hayward and a graduate student studying foreign policy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts. She earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. This commentary was vetted by Flynn’s professor at Tufts, Karen Jacobsen, an expert in forced migration, before being submitted to and edited by the News Tribune.

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