When traffic backs up for 2 miles in Bismarck, North Dakota, it has to be for something big. And so it was. On Dec. 9, the largest crowd for a public hearing that anyone could remember gathered in the Horizon Middle School cafeteria.
It was about the sort of issue that can tear a community apart—whether to accept outsiders. In this case, it was about refugee resettlement. President Trump had announced in September that the annual number for refugee resettlement would be set at 18,000, and local governments could decide for themselves whether they would accept them.
Governor Doug Burgum had agreed to it. “North Dakota has had success at integrating refugees who have become responsible citizens and productive members of the workforce,” he said in a statement. The county commissions in Fargo and Grand Forks also agreed to continue accepting refugees through Lutheran Social Services. In Bismarck, however, rather than just vote, the Burleigh County Commissioners opened it for public discussion.
That is when the eyes of the world turned upon us. National and local news broadcasts carried the story as did TIME, the New York Times and even the Japan Times. It was expected that Bismarck—a community of around 100,000 that usually accepts a couple dozen a year—would become the only place to halt the resettlement of refugees.
Letters Poured In
Some might say that at that point, all hell broke loose. In some ways it did. But a bit of heaven also broke loose as both sides were motivated by concern for each other and for our community, although with different ideas on how that should play out.
Since my husband Mark is a Burleigh County Commissioner, he received more than 500 emails from both sides. The first wave was overwhelmingly against, but the predominant opinion soon reversed. Church leaders across various bodies and denominations pleaded for compassion. “Under Catholic social teaching, and based on the words and life of Jesus Christ, we are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome refugees as part of our Christian call,” Bishop David Kagan wrote.
Msgr. James Shea, President of the University of Mary, appealed to commissioners not to be ruled by fear. “Refugees, by definition, are fleeing horribly painful and dangerous situations. They are seeking what we all have in abundance: security, a community of good and welcoming people, education for their children, religious liberty, opportunity and freedom.”
Josh Skjoldal, lead pastor of Evangel, a Christian church, urged for “compassion and reality rather than politics and misinformation.” He pointed out that the number of job vacancies compared to the number of refugees that come is an example of why “it is not a decision that will overwhelm our county.”
During almost four hours of public testimony, early on was Claus Lemke, who immigrated from Germany over 50 years ago, unable to speak English at the time. He has since served as the government affairs director for the North Dakota Association of Realtors. “Let’s help them,” he pleaded. “What is the strength of the United States? It is their diversity.”
Following him was a long-bearded man in a wide-brimmed hat worried about the ideology coming in, although he explained he was not against refugees. And so it continued.
Sam Hapip, the Reach Director at Evangel, said his church would personally adopt and mentor refugees. Sarah Vogel, a former state Agricultural Commissioner noted the legacy of immigrants in our state and urged a yes vote to be consistent with the history and ethics of our state.
Mark LoMurray, a previous Director of the Police Youth Bureau, and founder and Director of Sources of Strength, an international suicide and violence prevention program begun in Bismarck, explained the goal is to help everyone feel accepted and cared for. Yet, according to him, this issue boils down to “who belongs and who does not.” If it were truly a budget issue, he said he will donate $25,000 and help organize other groups to help out.
Those opposed to accepting refugees cited homelessness, the needs of veterans and drug addicts and other concerns that needed to be solved before accepting refugees. They also wanted more information about costs and crime. One man pointed to an increase in crime in Minneapolis due to refugees. Costs and statistics were brought up, some of which were later countered and clarified in the Bismarck Tribune.
Those in favor noted that refugees went to work and paid taxes, and that federal and not local money was involved and already earmarked. A former police chief was quoted as seeing no increase in crime from refugees in our community.
Refugees themselves spoke about the suffering and danger they had escaped and the privilege to be here. A University of Mary sophomore from the Democratic Republic of Congo came as a teenager unable to speak English. In high school, he washed dishes at the Woodhouse restaurant and walked 2 miles to work during winter. His mother works two jobs and could not attend the meeting because she was at work.
A woman from Cameroon stated that refugees want to work. “Tonight, when you leave here, go to Walmart,” she said. “See how many of them are stocking shelves when you sleep. Then you will know what we are talking about.”
Although some people urged to wait and get more information, in the end, it passed 3-2 with an amendment to cap new arrivals at 25 and evaluate the situation again next year.
A Lesson in Love
During a later radio interview, my husband explained that he was guided by the teachings of Jesus, that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, that we do onto him.
He likened our situation to the refugee story, when Joseph fled King Herod’s persecution with Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt.
It is not so simple, however, and it is not over. Faithful Catholics are not all in agreement; some look to Europe and worry that Islam will take root and overwhelm our community. There is anger among some people and a determination to change the vote next year and oust the commissioners who voted in favor .
Others were sad it was ever an issue at all. Joe Cleary, born and raised in Bismarck and now a soccer coach at Wayne State College in Nebraska, was one of these people. He wrote the commissioners that he was embarrassed about Bismarck as the issue came up frequently in conversations at his workplace. “I have to answer for the actions, words, and thoughts of others that I don't agree with,” he wrote. “We can all be better. We can find a way to help.”
So, we have a year ahead of both sides wanting to prove they were right. Sigh. My hope and prayer is that everyone who expressed concern for others will get busy and help them — be it the homeless, addicted, refugees or whomever. Everyone should be helping someone. If we do, together, we will all become better.