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ND bill opens door to local and statewide bans on refugee resettlement

Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn asks for an accounting of what the refugee resettlement in the Fargo area is costing during the Commission meeting Monday, Oct. 10, 2016. Dave Wallis / The Forum

BISMARCK – North Dakota lawmakers have proposed a bill that would create a way for communities to request temporary bans on new refugee resettlement and would grant the governor power to impose such a ban statewide.

The proposal was welcomed by Dave Piepkorn, a Fargo city commissioner and resettlement skeptic who has been pushing for more local input on where refugees are placed and more data about their impact.

“Right now, a lot of people are afraid to ask any questions at all because they’re accused of being a racist or xenophobe,” he said.

If House Bill 1427 passes, local governments could apply to stop refugee resettlement in their communities, either through the governor’s office or Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota (LSSND), the group federally contracted to resettle refugees in the state. A ban could last up to a year and so could an extension of the ban, the bill says.

Before applying for a ban, a local government would have to hold a public hearing and issue a finding that “further resettlement of refugees in the host community would result in an adverse impact to existing residents,” the bill states.

Such a finding would be based on what the bill calls a community’s “refugee absorptive capacity.” This capacity would be determined by various factors, such as local availability of housing, jobs and health care, as well as the ability of social services, schools, police and other government agencies to meet refugees’ needs, according to the bill.

With a similar finding, the governor could issue an executive order for a statewide moratorium on refugee resettlement, the bill says.

Phone and email messages left for the bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Chris Olson, R-West Fargo, were not returned Tuesday, Jan. 17. Among the bill’s co-sponsors is Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo.

“I believe that we need to have transparency and input from the stakeholders on where refugee resettlement happens and to what degree,” Koppelman said.

A provision of the bill would require LSSND each year to give certain data to state officials and to local governments in places where refugees are resettled. This data would include the number of refugees resettled in each ZIP code, the number of refugee children enrolled in public schools and the number of refugees receiving cash assistance or other public benefits.

LSSND would also have to provide reports on the crimes committed by refugees or against them “including incidents of child abuse, female genital mutilation, domestic abuse, sex or human trafficking, or terrorism, whether prosecuted or not,” the bill states.

Under the bill, LSSND and other publicly-funded or tax-exempt groups that serve refugees would need to meet at least quarterly with local government officials to plan the best placement of refugees before they arrive.

LSSND resettled 558 refugees in fiscal year 2016, which ended Sept. 30. Of those, 372 came to Fargo, 106 to Grand Forks, 50 to Bismarck and eight to West Fargo. In fiscal year 2017, the group has projected it will resettle 315 refugees in the Fargo area, 110 in Grand Forks and 50 in Bismarck.

Shirley Dykshoorn, who oversees refugee resettlement for LSSND, said Tuesday that the nonprofit group was still reviewing the bill. She did not say whether or not LSSND supports the bill, but noted that the group already collects data on refugees and meets quarterly with local agencies to update them on resettlement matters.

Dykshoorn said sharing such information with more entities is “very doable.” “We are certainly wanting to be as inclusive and transparent as possible in our work with affected agencies,” she said in an email.

Piepkorn said he visited with Olson about the bill before it was introduced.

“He created it, but I did have some input, so I’m totally in support of it,” Piepkorn said.

Asked whether he would seek a moratorium on refugee resettlement in Fargo if the bill passed, Piepkorn said he was not set on doing so. He said he’s more concerned with city commissioners becoming involved in refugee resettlement decisions and finding out how the system can be improved.

Fowzia Adde, a Somali leader in the Fargo area, said it would be North Dakota’s loss if refugee resettlement is banned. “They’re going to be shooting themselves in their own leg,” she said. “It’s actually improved the economy to have the new Americans.”

Adde said refugees work hard, pay their taxes and succeed quickly. “We are doing all the work that nobody else wants to do,” she said.

She cautioned that the bill could come back to bite lawmakers, given the state’s increasing number of refugees. “Our voting power is growing,” she said.

Gov. Doug Burgum did not respond to a request for comment on the bill. No hearings on the legislation have been set.

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