Beltrami County refugee vote hypocritical, commissioner says

    Beltrami County Commissioner Tim Sumner
    Beltrami County Commissioner Tim Sumner

    When Beltrami County became the first local government in Minnesota to refuse to accept new refugees under President Donald Trump’s executive order, one county commissioner noted the irony and hypocrisy of the vote. 

    Commissioner Tim Sumner, a member of the Red Lake Nation, told the Star Tribune, “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.”

    That executive order allowing states and counties to refuse refugees was just halted by a judge Wednesday, so it’s unclear whether or not Beltrami County’s decision will have any legal force. 

    Sumner was one of two commissioners to vote in favor of accepting refugees (the other three voted against it). Minnesota Reformer wanted to hear more from Sumner about his vote and its repercussions, so we called him at his office. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

    Why did you vote to accept refugees?

    First, because it was the most humanitarian thing to do. You know, coming from a Native American culture, part of our beliefs is acceptance and being welcoming to different people.  And the United States has a responsibility … if we’re going to war with different countries, displacing people, I think, we have a responsibility in that sense. But [also] the United States is a nation of immigrants. It’s kind of hypocritical for some to say ‘well, you’re not welcome here.’ That’s why I was baffled some people were so adamant about not allowing people to resettle in Beltrami County. 

    Were you surprised that a majority of your colleagues voted not to accept refugees?

    No, I wasn’t surprised. I would have been surprised if the majority of my colleagues were in support of accepting refugees. But I’ve been on the board long enough to understand the makeup of the board and their beliefs. 

    Quite honestly, I don’t think that they have the same perspective as I do. You know, I think our beliefs and our cultures don’t really see eye-to-eye. I guess we all have different upbringings. So, I wasn’t one bit surprised. Disheartened and saddened, yes.

    I’m wondering how your Native constituents are reacting. Did they support you in your vote?

    Well, you’re not going to get 100% of support one way or the other. But I did attend a Red Lake Tribal Council meeting, and they were supportive of the way I voted even though it was a divisive issue. As for individual tribal members up in Red Lake, I haven’t received any negative feedback. 

    Quite honestly, I think the majority vote of the county board do not necessarily speak for the silent majority who weren’t present and the people that I heard from since then. I’ve been getting a lot of calls asking for reconsideration of this, [but] I spoke to our county administrator and by the sound of it, the chair of the board is not going to reconsider his position or bring the matter up at any future meeting.

    Have you heard of planned boycotts and protests of the vote? 

    I’ve seen a lot of talk about it on social media, but I’m not too sure how or who was organizing that. What I would like to do is take this time to unite our community. This issue is divisive, and nobody wants to see Beltrami County fail or the City of Bemidji fail.

    Now is probably the best opportunity to move forward and address some of these issues that some of the locals have expressed, like, we need to take care of our own. Quite honestly, I’m not too sure what they mean when they say, “take care of our own.”

    Beltrami County has roughly a 20% Native population. … There’s a huge unemployment disparity between Native and non-Native. So, are they gonna offer livable wages for our own? If they want to improve services, it’s gonna cost money. There’s going to be tax burden. The budget keeps increasing but you know the wages are stagnant. It doesn’t make fiscal sense to keep taxing people if their wages aren’t keeping up with inflation. I’m the only Commissioner that has voted against the budget the past three or four years. So if you want to talk to me about fiscal responsibility, I’m the guy. So my next step is try to get a little clarification on what “take care of our own” really means.

    You said you want to look at what can bring Beltrami County together. Do you have any idea of what might help unify Beltrami County after this divisive vote?

    Right now we’re just kind of in the beginning stages, you know, brainstorming. I’m not too sure if you know the history or make-up of Beltrami County, but from what I’ve heard and experienced, there is racism but it’s not acknowledged by the non-Native community. So, you know, people are saying “we need to take care of our own first.” Well, let’s talk about these tough issues.

    Max Nesterak
    Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.