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County calls for hearing on refugee resettlement

Request by UCAP draws too much comments for board meeting

MARSHALL — Lyon County commissioners were supposed to discuss a request to allow the continued resettlement of refugees in the county. But there were so many members of the public speaking at a Tuesday county board meeting, that commissioners instead called for a hearing later this month.

More than 20 members of the public were present, as representatives from United Community Action Partnership requested consent to continue with resettlement services that reunite refugees with family members living in Lyon County.

Commissioners voted to set a hearing for 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 28, at a location to be announced. Commissioner Charlie Sanow cautioned members of the public that the focus of the hearing will be refugee resettlement, and not broader concerns about immigration.

“I want to talk about actual, factual parts of refugee resettlement,” Sanow said Tuesday.

The request from UCAP came after President Donald Trump issued a September executive order requiring state and local governments to give written consent before refugees could be resettled in their jurisdictions. Last month, Gov. Tim Walz gave consent for resettlement in the state of Minnesota, and counties including Kandiyohi and Brown County have already voted to give their consent.

Audience members at Tuesday’s meeting raised concerns ranging from the tax burden of providing human services to more people, to concerns about the impact of new populations on area schools, and whether those new populations were assimilating in area communities. However, commissioners pointed out that a lot of those concerns were more about immigration in general than about refugee resettlement.

“This is coming as a refugee, not as an immigrant,” Sanow said. “We’re talking 37 people total in three years … and those people are going to work.”

In a letter to the county board, UCAP Family Services Director Angela Larson said refugees are specifically people who are forced to flee their home countries due to war or violence, and are unable to return. Larson said refugee resettlement was not connected to the asylum crisis at the U.S. southern border.

“Refugees undergo a very thorough background screening,” involving multiple federal agencies, before coming to the U.S., Larson said Tuesday. UCAP has worked with a small number of refugees since the start of its program in 2014.

“We’re not talking about hundreds of people, or anything like that,” Larson said. In 2019, UCAP helped a total of 25 individual refugees, in six households, in Lyon County. Over the past three years, UCAP has worked with a total of 37 refugees in Lyon County.

Larson said having the county’s permission for refugee resettlement would make a difference in terms of federal grant funding to help refugees secure housing and employment, get enrolled in school and work toward citizenship. Refugees also receive $1,175 to help with needs like housing, food and clothing in their initial resettlement, said UCAP case worker Samira Sheikh.

If the county doesn’t give its consent for resettlement, refugees could still move into Lyon County. However, if they had initially been settled somewhere else, the grant funding wouldn’t come with them, Larson said.

Larson said refugees contribute to Social Security and pay more than $227 million in state and local taxes each year.

Commissioner Rick Anderson said there are currently 2,700 jobs available in the nine-county area including Lyon County. Having more people move in legally would help fill those jobs and help communities grow. In resettled refugees, he said, “We have people who want to move in and be productive.”

But based on their comments, audience members at the meeting were skeptical. Several asked how having more refugees and immigrants would affect taxes, with an increased need to pay for public infrastructure and buildings like schools.

“I am not opposed to helping people,” said audience member Arlene Markell. However, Markell said some area residents were feeling hard hit by taxes. She compared it to the feeling of having your wallet or purse snatched on the street.

“This is the way people are feeling about how we’re being taxed,” she said.

Other audience members said they were concerned about having a growing number of Muslim people in the community, or that mainstreaming English Language Learners in schools was hurting the quality of education in Marshall.

“Are they assimilating to American culture?” asked one audience member.

Sheikh responded by telling her own family’s story of fleeing civil war in Somalia, first going to a refugee camp in Kenya, and then being resettled to the U.S.

“We were fortunate enough to come to the U.S.,” in 1997, Sheikh said. Since then, Sheikh said she has been able to get an education, graduate from college and own a home.

“This is home for me,” she said. “I feel like I am part of the community.”

One audience member did speak in favor of refugee resettlement.

“I, frankly, want to see Marshall grow,” said Justin Vorbach. Vorbach also reiterated that the county wasn’t being asked to act on national immigration or refugee settlement policies — just on whether or not to allow resettlement here. “You might not like that program, but that’s not what’s on the table here.”

Commissioners said they wouldn’t take action on UCAP’s request on Tuesday. Instead, they set a public hearing for Jan. 28. County staff said they would consider how much space would be needed to accommodate members of the public, and will announce where the hearing will be held.

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