Lewis stumps for blocking refugee resettlement in Bemidji

U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis held a town hall in Bemidji in support of Beltrami County's vote to not accept new refugees. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

BEMIDJI — On the campaign trail for a U.S. Senate seat, Jason Lewis made a stop in Bemidji Thursday night to host a discussion many here say they wish they weren’t having at all: refugee resettlement.

The topic has been a flash point since the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to not accept new refugees, becoming the first jurisdiction in Minnesota, and the second in the nation, to do so.

“They got a lot of unfair flak for making a local decision,” the former one term Republican congressman said in an interview before the town hall. “So since I was supportive, I thought this would be a good place to come in and get some input from local citizens and [have] the discussion here.”

Beltrami County did get a lot of flak for its vote. DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler was quick to threaten cutting off state aid to the county in retribution. Others proposed a boycott on Bemidji.

“Both sides agreed that (refugee resettlement) should have never been brought up,” said Bill Batchelder, a Republican activist and president of Bemidji Woolen Mill.

Batchelder is pleased with the county’s vote to not participate in refugee resettlement, but noted that it was unlikely any refugees were coming to Beltrami County. The county hasn’t resettled any refugees in at least the past five years and the prospect has become even less likely under President Trump, who’s cut the number of refugees allowed to enter the country to historic lows.

Batchelder’s complaint is that Beltrami County Commissioner Reed Olson brought it to a vote so quickly.

“If Reed was actually genuine and serious about bringing refugees to Bemidji, he could have had public hearings. He could have had education. He could have done community outreach, but oh no, Reed wanted to get up on the grandstand and embolden himself and divide our beautiful community,” Batchelder said.

For Reed Olson’s part, the entire county board felt pressure to make a decision after President Trump issued an executive order in September requiring local governments to provide written consent to participate in refugee resettlement within 90 days.

That set off a wave of votes across the country. So far, 20 counties in Minnesota have voted to approve refugee resettlement, two voted to delay and others are scheduled to vote later this month. Beltrami remains the only county to vote to refuse new refugees.

Whether any of those votes mean anything is still to be determined after a judge blocked Trump’s order.

Even so, Puposky-resident Cate Belleveau says she thinks the president’s executive order is working exactly as he intended it.

“This was to stir up more divisiveness. That was why President 45 put this onto local communities. Because he thrives on chaos and divisiveness,” said Belleveau. “We really had a minimal chance of having a refugee resettlement here. And it’s playing the people who are struggling in rural areas against each other.”

Beltrami County looks like Trump country on a 2016 map. Trump took 50% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 40%. But the county has historically leaned Democrat and in 2018 went for both DFL Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, who is Lewis’s presumptive 2020 opponent. Smith, however, only beat out her Republican challenger Karin Housley by about 500 votes.

Bemidji residents Dale Shanahan, Joe Vene and Connie Aguillo listen to Republican U.S. Senate Candidate Jason Lewis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Beltrami County resident Kris Neises said she thinks Lewis saw a political opportunity in the refugee resettlement debate.

“I don’t think Jason Lewis would ever have come up here were it not for that opportunity to drive a further wedge in because of what happened with the refugee vote,” Neises said.

Of the roughly hundred people who came, a majority were happy to see Lewis and hear him affirm their county’s ‘no’ vote.

“When I heard that your county took the decision to exercise self-government and say we want to pause refugee resettlement. The reaction from a faraway capital I decided that I got to get up here and have your back,” Lewis told the crowd to applause.

In his speech, Lewis raised the same fear residents did, albeit with more quotes from Thomas Paine and Milton Friedman: That refugees would be an economic burden.

“Our resources aren’t infinite. [It] costs roughly $79,000 to resettle a refugee,” Lewis said.

The figure he’s citing is both alarming and misleading. The study he cites comes from an anti-immigration organization called the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a group with ties to white supremacists, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The study’s authors estimate how much government assistance refugees may receive with rough math based on a survey of a sample of refugees from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

But a Trump administration study found an opposite result. Trump ordered the Department of Health and Human Services early in his term to research the economic burden of refugees, but then rejected the study when it reported refugees actually contributed $63 billion more in revenue to federal, state and local governments than they cost over the decade surveyed.

Although it’s true refugees typically rely on public assistance when they first arrive in a new country, government surveys suggest it’s often only for a few years. It’s impossible to calculate exactly what refugees cost the government because so many different agencies administer public assistance and not all collect data on a person’s immigration status. The Minnesota Legislative Auditor found this out in 2017 when the Legislature directed them to research the fiscal impacts of refugee resettlement.

What the study Lewis cites also doesn’t do is account for what contributions refugees make to the economy. Again, that’s difficult, because “refugee” isn’t something that’s reported on a tax return, for instance. Researchers who have tried to study the impact of refugee resettlement report it brings economic benefits.

Given its aging population and shrinking labor supply, Minnesota is among the places that could benefit the greatest from immigration. This has become a regular drum beat out of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Beltrami County resident Kris Neises holds a sign, “Be not afraid,” at Jason Lewis’s town hall in Bemidji. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

But the perception that refugees create a large burden — paired with the reality that Beltrami County is one of the poorest in the state —makes putting a pause on refugee resettlement an attractive one. Misinformation about waves of refugees coming has also spread like wildfire throughout the area.

“We want to welcome the tired, the poor, the hungry, the teeming masses yearning to be free. But we need to build capacity,” said Joe Vene. “America welcomes any and all. But we have to have the capacity.”

When he was asked what it would mean for Beltrami to have the capacity, Vene replied, “I defer to the city commissioners at this time for the specifics of the capacity of social services and facilities in the area that will accommodate the human need.”

In his town hall, Lewis also raised the specter of profiteering in refugee resettlement, suggesting religious non-profits are motivated by the $1,100 per person they receive from the federal government to help refugees find a home, buy clothes, buy groceries, use transportation and do everything else it takes to get settled in the first 90 days. The $1,100 is rarely enough, according to religious nonprofits, which say they must find alternative revenue streams to cover the actual cost — including donations.

“Instead of taking their charitable dollars and settling them entirely, [the organizations] get them on public assistance. And then they virtue signal and say, aren’t we wonderful with your money?” Lewis told the crowd.

Again, it’s true refugees typically rely on public assistance like food stamps when first arriving in a new country with nothing, but more often than not, refugees come to rely on their own income within several years.

Finally, Lewis raised an attractive alternative for people who don’t want to accept new refugees. Settling them near their home countries.

“Why aren’t we settling them closer to where they came from and where their culture resides and where their families are?” Lewis asked his audience, which replied with a hearty applause. (The claim that it’s cheaper to resettle refugees in neighboring countries is based on the cost of providing aid in refugee camps, which is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison).

That resonated with Batchelder, who said Lewis made the point “crystal clear” for him.

“My God, if we brought them up here and it’s 30 below … how inhospitable,” Batchelder said. “And I can’t speak for everybody in Beltrami County, but there’s going to be immediate friction. We need a welcoming place for refugees.”