The Beltrami County Board room was packed with locals Tuesday evening. Most came out to ask the commissioners to vote against the possibility of refugees resettling in the area. Credit: John Enger | MPR News

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The Beltrami County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday night to prohibit refugees from resettling in the area — making it the first county in the state, and possibly among the first the nation, to expressly prohibit resettlement.

Only 2 of the county’s 5 commissioners voted to allow refugees.

Spurred by a presidential executive order, county boards across the state met Tuesday to consider whether they should allow refugees to be resettled within their borders this year.

Some rural counties in southwestern Minnesota gave their consent unanimously, while places like St. Louis County, which includes Duluth, and Stearns County, which includes St. Cloud, tabled the issue without taking a definitive vote.

Beltrami County vote mostly symbolic

For its part, the Beltrami County board could have achieved the same result as it did Tuesday night without voting on the executive order. Counties are required to opt in to refugee resettlement. Not voting at all would have been interpreted by the federal government the same as an explicit “no” vote, and wouldn’t have attracted as much attention.

Commissioner Reed Olson said he brought the issue before the board because “it would have been cowardly” to let it pass without taking a stand.

Olson was joined by commissioner Tim Sumner in voting to allow refugee resettlement in the county. Commissioners Craig Gaasvig, Richard Anderson and Jim Lucachick all voted against consent.

The county board’s meeting room in downtown Bemidji was packed Tuesday night. People lined the walls and spilled into the hallway. Most in the crowd appeared to be opposed to refugees: When board chair Gaasvig asked the crowd for a show of hands of those opposed to consent, most of the hands in the room went up.

Several people in attendance were vocal in favor of accepting refugees. But when commissioners said they would not hold public comment at the meeting, attendees on both sides of the issue were angry when they couldn’t speak.

According to statistics from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, no primary refugees have been resettled in Beltrami County in the past five years. Now, Beltrami will not be considered as a possible new home for refugees. In all likelihood, Olson said, the county wouldn’t have been considered, even if it had voted to allow refugees.

“The federal government usually tries to place refugees in cities where there is already a refugee community,” he said, “where there is infrastructure in place to help that community.”

And because Beltrami has not taken in refugees in recent years, the Tuesday vote was largely symbolic, Olson said.

Counties wrestle with resettlement question

President Trump issued an executive order in September requiring states and counties to explicitly approve refugee resettlement starting this summer. State officials say counties will have until June to offer their consent. But agencies that help refugees resettle in Minnesota must submit their applications to the federal government by Jan. 21.

Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison joined at least a dozen attorneys general in supporting a lawsuit filed by refugee resettlement groups challenging the president’s order. They argue that it contradicts federal law and is unconstitutional. Oral arguments in that case are scheduled to begin Wednesday in federal court in Maryland.

Refugee resettlement agencies have asked the 25 Minnesota counties where refugees have resettled in the past five years to confirm they support resettlement within their borders.

As of Tuesday evening, at least 13 of those counties have voted to continue to accept refugees. They include metro Hennepin County, the state’s most populous, and rural counties like Murray, Blue Earth and Nobles in southern Minnesota.

Gov. Walz: ‘Inn is not full in Minnesota’

States are also required to respond to Trump’s executive order in order to allow refugee resettlement. Gov. Tim Walz last month approved continued refugee resettlement in Minnesota.

“Refugees strengthen our communities,” the governor wrote in a letter released by his office to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Walz added later, “The inn is not full in Minnesota.”

The number of refugees who resettled annually in Minnesota dropped by roughly two-thirds between 2016 and last year, when just 848 refugees were resettled in the state.

The state Department of Human Services, which helps coordinate refugee resettlement efforts, says the Jan. 21 deadline for social service agencies to declare whether they’ll take on more refugees this year will help determine which groups will receive funding to assist refugees starting this summer.

But counties will be able to give consent for refugees to be resettled within their borders until the president’s order goes into effect in June. If they don’t officially decline or consent by the June deadline, counties will be considered a “no” vote for accepting refugee resettlement.

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John Enger

Contributing Reporter MPR News reporter based in Bemidji, Minn.