I recently spoke with a Northern Minnesota military veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In casual conversation he described his efforts to help an Iraqi translator and his family get to America. This Iraqi man took enormous personal risk to work alongside U.S. forces. Now, he and his loved ones face even greater threats from Al Qaida militants.
My friend said the situation is uncertain. Our current political climate is keeping almost everyone out of our country — no matter who, no matter why. In any event, the family of this Iraqi man who helped Americans has a lot to lose.
Oxford Dictionary defines “refugee” as “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.” In legal terms, “refugee” is a more exclusive classification than “immigrant,” which is “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.” Today many people hear “refugee” and inaccurately think of an illegal immigrant rather than a Jewish family fleeing the Holocaust during WWII.
“We shall share in the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression,” said President Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican. His administration oversaw more refugee resettlement than his successors of either party. This, despite the fact that Reagan actually tightened the criteria to become a refugee, instead classifying many from war-torn countries as migrants and sending them back.
In the last couple weeks two northern Minnesota counties made headlines for their respective actions on whether to accept resettlement of refugees. Beltrami County voted to block resettlement. St. Louis County voted to table the issue until May.
Both county boards faced an onslaught of public comments at their meetings, or by phone and e-mail. According to reports most feedback was strongly opposed to allowing refugees to settle in these counties.
That’s where the story starts to unravel. Because, for all the outrage, there are no organized refugee resettlement programs in either place.
Data reporter Greta Kaul of MinnPost reported in a Jan. 9 analysis that St. Louis County resettled just one refugee from 2009 to 2018. Beltrami, Itasca, Koochiching, Lake and Cook counties didn’t resettle any refugees during that time.
In truth, the only reason this debate is happening — at all — is because of an executive order by President Trump requiring every county in the United States to vote on whether they will accept legal refugee resettlements. It’s liquid controversy, delivered by fire hose, pumped into our social media feeds. And that’s probably why the order was given. It divides our communities, forcing people to “take sides” on a nonsensical argument. Ultimately, it distracts us from the real problems we have in rural Minnesota.
In fact, no vote taken by any county board will change much about where refugees settle if they come to America. And refugees who are here will remain free to move wherever they want. Though it’s not likely they’d move somewhere where people scowl at them. (In this, refugees aren’t much different than young Americans or entrepreneurs).
What motivates this issue are the fear, anger and resentment that come from a world that changes against our will. Those very real feelings are being exploited to turn us against each other and those in need.
So let’s check the logic of some of the claims reported in the refugee debate.
Claim: “Refugees will drain public resources.”
Reality: No comprehensive data show this to be true. It’s largely a generalization that comes from the notion that refugees are impoverished or belong to groups falsely stereotyped as “lazy.” In fact, no group of people are more motivated to work, buy a house, and rebuild a life than refugees. Only a brief period of assistance is necessary, mostly in the form of education and job placement. Most refugees were professionals in their old lives and are likely to produce generations of motivated professionals now.
The evidence of my claim can be found in our early 20th Century Iron Range ancestors. Slavs fled inscription in the Austrian Army. Italians fled political sectionalism. Finns escaped both sides of their civil war. Many of their progeny went on to start businesses, become doctors and serve as mayors, senators and county commissioners right here in our community.
Claim: “Northern Minnesota ‘can’t handle’ new refugees.”
Reality: The real estate listings tell me that housing is available. For the last three decades our region’s schools have been emptied by declining enrollment. Our local businesses need customers. Local business owners tell me they struggle to find people willing to work hard who can pass drug tests. Nothing would provide as much meaningful economic stability as *more people.* So, I struggle to understand what is really meant by this claim.
I’ve spent the past four years researching Hibbing history of 1900-1926. Most of the things said about refugees in the recent debate were said about Eastern Europeans, Italians and Finns back then. Important men held meetings to complain about the smell of garlic on the Mesaba Railway Interurban passenger cars.
It was ugly nonsense 100 years ago. It still is.
Aaron J. Brown is a Northern Minnesota author and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com. He’s working on a book about Victor Power and early 1900s Hibbing. Contact him at email@example.com.