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North Dakota county narrowly votes to continue accepting refugees

Officials with the Burleigh County Commission voted 3-2 to continue to accept refugees following a Trump administration order granting local governments the authority to reject taking refugees in.
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Residents in support of continued refugee resettlement hold signs at a meeting in Bismarck, N.D. on Dec. 9. 2019.James MacPherson / AP

A North Dakota county narrowly voted Monday to accept up to 25 refugees next year in a split decision that follows a Trump administration order granting local governments the authority to reject taking refugees in.

Officials with the Burleigh County Commission voted 3-2 to continue to accept refugees Monday night in a nearly four-hour public meeting in a crowded middle school in Bismarck where hundreds had gathered.

The county is home to about 95,000 people and includes the state’s capital. With Monday’s vote, the county had the potential become the first local government to ban resettling refugees following a September executive order from President Donald Trump giving them the authority to do so.

The meeting was supposed to take place last week, but too many people showed up at the venue which prompted them to move things to the middle school to accommodate the crowd.

The commissioners’ decision included a cap of 25 refugees for 2020, about the same number as those resettled in the state last year, and to receive status reports about the new arrivals.

Multiple refugees spoke in emotional testimony about their experiences and urged commissioners to continue allowing people to seek protection there.

“We are not in this country just to take your government money,” said Tresor Mugwaneza, a college student who came to the U.S. from Congo. “In fact, we are here to work and be successful in life just like everyone else here.”

“Look at the room and tell every immigrant here that they are not welcomed,” said Geraldine Ambe, who moved to Bismarck from Cameroon and is now a U.S. citizen, according to The Associated Press. She said her aunt and her husband and their four children “ran from Nigeria to seek protection,” the AP reported.

Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken said during the meeting that the potential costs associated with supporting new refugees needed to be taken into consideration.

“We’re extremely welcoming, but when you don’t have a situation financially to support what you currently have in needs and now you’re going to throw another blanket of needs on top of that, show me the numbers,” he said.

In September, Trump announced the U.S. would receive only 18,000 refugees in fiscal year 2020, a historic low since the program began in 1980.

The president also ordered that refugees would be resettled in jurisdictions where state and local governments consented to receive them.

“State and local governments are best positioned to know the resources and capacities they may or may not have available to devote to sustainable resettlement, which maximizes the likelihood refugees placed in the area will become self-sufficient and free from long-term dependence on public assistance,” Trump said in the executive order.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgam said last month that he supported the administration’s decision to give local government that authority, but raised “serious concerns” in denying resettlement given the state’s workforce shortage.

“We support the administration giving states and local jurisdictions the consent authority on whether to continue receiving refugees, and we respect the right to exercise local control,” Burgum said in a statement. “That being said, we have serious concerns that denying resettlement to a handful of well-vetted and often family-connected refugees would send a negative signal beyond our borders at a time when North Dakota is facing a severe workforce shortage and trying to attract capital and talent to our state.”

The governor’s office did not respond to immediate request for comment regarding Monday’s vote.