HIBBING — In northern Minnesota, St. Louis County Board Chair Mike Jugovich told the Hibbing Daily Tribune that he’s answered nearly 200 emails and phone calls in the past two weeks from constituents on the Iron Range asking whether commissioners plan to allow refugees to resettle in the largest county in the state.
“Is the Buhl school going to be a refugee resettlement camp?”
“Will the Iron Range be able to handle thousands of refugees?”
These are the sort of questions being posed to the commissioner, he said, following the creation of newly created, private Facebook pages, such as “All Things Buhl, Minnesota” and “St. Louis County Against Refugee Resettlement.”
During a phone interview, Jugovich described a refugee being someone who leaves their home because of war and violence. An immigrant, for comparison, is someone who makes a decision to leave their home and move to a foreign country. Both refugees and immigrants are vetted before entering the U.S. and in Minnesota. The federal Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration has five agencies in the state that provide placement services. None of the agencies are located on the Iron Range.
Minnesota placed 818 refugees throughout the state in 2018, Jugovich said. The county took in only one in the past six years and zero in the past five years.
“I don’t think people have a good grasp of what this all means, and there’s a lot of misconceptions about how refugee resettlement works,” Jugovich, who represents the Seventh District covering the northwestern portion of the county from Floodwood up to Hibbing and Chisholm, told the HDT.
The spread of falsehoods on the Iron Range comes after the St. Louis County Board listened to 40 people testify for more than two hours and voted 4-3 this past Tuesday in Duluth to postpone a decision to accept or ban the resettlement of refugees until May 26, close to the federal deadline of declaring consent by June 1.
“When [Commissioner Keith Nelson of Virginia] made a motion to table the vote, I thought it was a good idea,” Jugovich said. “Refugees are not going to be flooding St. Louis County, and I thought people needed more information.”
Also this week, Stearns County Commissioners in St. Cloud moved to delay a vote on the matter. A dozen other counties submitted letters of consent to welcome refugees, while one county voted down the issue.
St. Louis County has resettled no refugees in the past five years. Ramsey County has the largest number of resettlements in the same time frame at 4,215, followed by Hennepin, 1,345; Stearns, 662; Anoka, 430; and Olmsted, 377, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services, as reported by the Star Tribune.
In the most divisive decision of the day, the Beltrami County board of commissioners voted 3-2 in Bemidji to deny consent. Beltrami County — set 140 miles northwest of Duluth — became the first county in Minnesota and the second in the U.S. to ban refugee resettlement under an executive order from President Donald J. Trump put the decision on local governments. The vote was largely a symbolic one since the county has not resettled any refugees in at least five years. The nation’s first county to ban refugee resettlement was Appomattox County, Va., in December 2019. The Beltrami vote came one night before commissioners in Burleigh County, N.D. voted to limit refugee resettlement to 25 people in 2020.
Back in September 2018, Trump issued an executive order requiring counties and states to approve refugee resettlements by June. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has joined at least a dozen attorneys general in backing a lawsuit from three refugee resettlement agencies. This week, a federal judge in Maryland heard initial arguments on requests from the agencies for a preliminary injunction stopping the Trump administration from enforcing the order.
Meanwhile, the news from Beltrami County has been published in The New York Times, TIME and resulted in the Star Tribune editorial and opinion section running a cartoon displaying the county as the “Unofficial Coldest Place in Minnesota.”
Minnesota DFL Gov. Tim Walz has joined at least 41 other governors across the nation consenting to refugees being resettled in the state. “The inn is not full in Minnesota,” he previously said. This week, he told the Star Tribune that he was “disappointed” in the vote but that he “understood that this executive order was meant to be divisive [and] it should have never been [pushed] down to the county levels.”
Against the vote, Minnesota DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler was one of several politicians to take to Twitter and voice his dismay: “MN counties that want state aid funded in part by taxes paid by immigrants and refugees should reconsider votes like these. Beltrami County received a state bailout in 2019 but 3 commissioners vote like they are an island.” DFL Rep. Illhan Omar tweeted: “This is deeply disheartening. Minnesotans have a history of welcoming refugees with open arms. Now, Beltrami is giving them a clenched fist. I’m proud that my home county — Hennepin — voted overwhelmingly to continue being a home for those fleeing oppression.”
Favoring the vote, Minnesota Miners, a self-described pro-mining group, tweeted: “.@GovTimWalz The Beltrami County Board had it right. Take care of the people in your county first before accepting refugees. The same principle should apply to the state. Create good paying jobs so that people can earn a good living before bringing in refugees.”
Commissioners in Beltrami County, a county of about 45,000 who voted for Trump in the 2016 election, have told media that many of their constituents felt that a vote in favor of refugee resettlement would mean a large number of people moving into communities that are already struggling economically. “If they were placed here, we just don’t have the resources to nurture them and help them succeed and be successful in life, and what a disappointment that would be,” Commissioner Richard Anderson told KBJR6. Of the 87 counties in Minnesota, we’re one of the poorest.” Commissioner Reed Olson, who was one of two to vote in favor of accepting refugees, said, “If we could have taken a little more time, maybe we could have dispelled a lot of the rumors going around.” He added, “If you’re an immigrant in the state, you can still come live in the county. The order is more for immigrants straight from the shoreline.”
Down in Duluth, the St. Louis County Board appeared to split its vote among rural and urban commissioners. Jugovich, who was serving in his first meeting as chair, sided with Virginia’s Keith Nelson, Ely’s Paul McDonald and Keith Musolf, who serves in rural Duluth, in tabling the decision on refugee resettlement. Meanwhile, Commissioners Frank Jewell, Beth Olson and Patrick Boyle, all from Duluth, voted in favor of resettlement.
The commissioner from Duluth blamed Nelson for leading the postponement and ended up scheduling to push out the vote until May 26 in Buhl.
“We’re going up to Buhl, so that Keith [Nelson] can gather a whole bunch of people from Buhl,” Jewell told the Duluth News Tribune after the vote. “I’m frustrated. We should have never delayed after making people wait for so long.”
After the vote, Boyle told the Star Tribune that “this executive order is about dividing county and states.”
The sentiment is shared by other commissioners, who have been reading newspapers, receiving phone calls and emails, and scouring social media sites that have about 200,000 constituents residing in 6,860 square miles of land questioning the basics of refugee resettlement.
On Friday, Jugovich told the HDT that he’s continued to receive emails and phone calls from constituents who say they believe a mass amount of refugees will come to the Iron Range if the County Board approves the resettlement. “I tell them we’ve only had one refugee come here since 2011,” Jugovich said. “I’m not against refugees, but I’m all for our decision to delay the vote because I want people to have all the information.”
He requested that his constituents contact him at his Hibbing office at 218-262-0201.