Midwest Dispatch: Minnesota, Refugees, and The Politics of Fear


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The holidays are officially over here in Minnesota. Barren Christmas trees, relieved of their sparkle and light, lie abandoned in alleys, waiting to be hauled away with the garbage and recycling. 

And, in another sure sign that the holiday season, with its promise of peace and goodwill, is over, officials from Beltrami County in northern Minnesota on January 7 voted by a 3-2 margin to refuse refugee resettlement in their community, should it be proposed.

They did this because they now have permission to, thanks to an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in 2019. Trump’s directive requires, for the first time, that “states and local governments provide written consent authorizing the initial resettlement of refugees into their respective communities,” according to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. 

On the surface, to some, this might sound like local empowerment. So communities must now sign off on any plan to place refugees (you know, needy people from foreign places) in their midst? Great. This is democracy, right? Or at least some kind of local control that gets the federal government off of our collective backs?

In Beltrami County, the vote against refugee resettlement was largely for show.

Not so fast. When Trump signed this executive order back in September, advocacy groups that work with refugees quickly organized against it, pointing out that requiring every state and local government to formally vote on whether or not to accept refugees will likely cause undue delay and harm to those seeking shelter.

“The refusal of a locality or a state to consent to resettle refugees sends a clear message to refugees, and potentially other immigrants, that they are not welcome in that geographic location,” writes Dan Kosten of the pro-immigrant National Immigration Forum. 

This message seems like the antithesis of every idealized image of America. Yet we have seen, under Trump, that the lofty “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” dream of America is easily undermined through anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric, and hate speech.

In Beltrami County, the vote against refugee resettlement was largely for show. For one thing, any government entity that does not publicly register a response to Trump’s decree by the January 25 deadline will be automatically counted as a no vote regarding whether or not to accept refugees.

On a practical level, the area is sparsely populated, with less than 50,000 residents. It also sits more than four hours away from the resource-heavy Twin Cities, making it an unlikely place for refugees to end up. 

Minnesota’s Democratic governor, Tim Walz, has also already indicated that the state is open to refugees, meaning anyone coming this way would be welcome—just not at the apparently closed doors of Beltrami County.

Still, there is a lesson to be learned here. Beltrami County has the distinction of being the first locale in Minnesota, and possibly only the second in the entire nation, to publicly reject refugee resettlement. 

But why?


One clue may be found in demographic data. The county is twice as poor as the rest of the state, nearly three-quarters of its residents are white, and the county did hand Trump a win over Hillary Clinton that year.

But perhaps there is something deeper going on, like a failure to confront or even understand our own stories. Two of the five Beltrami commissioners voted in favor of allowing refugees to resettle in the county, and one, Tim Sumner, is a member of the Red Lake Nation.

The Red Lake Nation occupies a large swath of land in and around Beltrami County, through the Red Lake Reservation. Its members, who refer to themselves as a band of Chippewa Indians, once moved freely throughout Minnesota—before, of course, white settlers descended on the area and, knowingly or not, participated in the genocide of indigenous peoples across the continent.

All of this begs the question: Who is really the outsider here? For Sumner, the answer is obvious. “A lot of people that migrated here are resettlers, so it was difficult for me to understand how a resettler can tell another resettler, ‘Well, you’re not welcome here,’ ” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I guess in my beliefs and thinking, that’s not appropriate.”

For the moment, xenophobia and a scarcity mindset—two clear cards in the Trump playbook—have won out in Beltrami County. In the eyes of some observers, this, after all, is the whole point of Trump’s executive order.

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