St. Louis County delays refugee decision to May

People crowd the Duluth Courthouse for Tuesday’s St. Louis County Board meeting, where commissioners voted to delay a vote on refugee resettlement until May.

In a vote that split among rural areas and urban Duluth commissioners, the St. Louis County Board tabled a decision on allowing refugee resettlement until its May 26 meeting in Buhl.

The 4-3 vote to delay a decision came after more than three hours of public testimony at the Duluth Courthouse, and left commissioners ready to support resettlement visibly frustrated. Public comments at the hearing favored the measure at a rate of more than 2-to-1, with people lining the walls, sitting in the boardroom aisles and standing in the hallway to witness the meeting.

Commissioner Keith Nelson of Virginia motioned to delay and was seconded by Commissioner Keith Musolf of Duluth. Musolf’s district lies primarily outside of Duluth city proper near Hermantown.

Newly seated Board Chair Mike Jugovich, of Hibbing, and Commissioner Paul McDonald, of Ely, also voted to table the item.

“There’s so much information,” Musolf said in seconding the motion. A video of the hearing was made available on YouTube by Duluth PACT, the city’s public access television station. “It’s only fair to make a proper decision here.”

Delaying the vote did not sit well with at least two Duluth commissioners, Vice Chair Beth Olson and Commissioner Frank Jewell.

Following the vote, Jewell stood up and asked for a personal privilege, while Nelson tried to request a lunch break, leading to one of the more tense moments of the late morning.

“Commissioner Jewell, everything I say, you’re offended by,” Nelson said. “Take a break. Take a pill for that.”

After breaking for lunch, that moment continued outside the boardroom. According to the Duluth News Tribune, Nelson, Jewell and Olson were in a “confrontation” that ended with Nelson holding his hands up and walking away from his fellow commissioners.

"I'm furious; I'm absolutely furious," Olson told the DNT. "I am emboldened and impassioned to fight like hell."

Jewell told the newspaper that Nelson orchestrated the delay.

"We're going to go up to Buhl, so that Keith can gather a whole bunch of people from Buhl," Jewell said. "I'm frustrated. We should have never delayed after making people wait for [so long]."

An issue across the state

Six other counties in Minnesota held votes on the refugee resettlement question Tuesday, and it gained support in Nobles, Murray, Dakota and Hennepin. Stearns County voted to table the issue until its next meeting.

Beltrami County on Tuesday night was the first county in Minnesota to deny refugee resettlement with a 3-2 vote.

In St. Louis County, those urging the board to consent to resettlement made appeals of humanity and compassion for refugees that have gone through hardships.

Fittingly, the vote came on the first anniversary of former Commissioner Tom Rukavina’s death, who in his final letter to the Timberjay newspaper, heralded the contribution of refugees to Minnesota, the Iron Range and the care he received at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.

Bob Rutko, of Aurora, reminded the commissioners of Rukavina’s words by reading the letter, which stated, in part: “My hope is that someday, the descendants of those people who are currently creating so much hardship for our new immigrants, will learn that people are people no matter their color, religion or country of origin. That they are good people coming to the land of the free for the same reason our ancestors did.”

Opposition to resettlement was mostly focused on the cost to taxpayers, a theme commonly found across the state.

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who won the Republican nomination in Minnesota’s 2018 gubernatorial race, cited cost and process concerns in his lone vote against granting consent. The Hennepin County Board approved resettlement by a 6-1 margin.

Gerald Williams, of Virginia, who spoke during Tuesday’s public testimony in Duluth, cited increasing taxes and pressure on social security dependent seniors as reasons for his opposition. Williams said he’s self-employed and works seven days a week to keep his head above water.

“We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the income,” he said. “We can’t take care of our own people. We don’t take care of own people.”

Trump orders consent

Counties are voting on the issue of refugee resettlement after an executive order issued by President Donald J. Trump in September 2019 that requires states and counties to consent or opt out of resettlement consideration.

Resettlement agencies must submit their placement strategies to the U.S. Department of State by the end of January, based on the letters of consent they receive. Those decisions take effect June 1, and refugees will not be placed in states and counties that do not provide written consent to the order by then.

St. Louis County is a low-priority location for refugee resettlement and no one with refugee status — designated as immigrants displaced by persecution, war, violence, famine or catastrophe — has landed in the county in the last five years, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. There is no resettlement agency within 50 miles of the county, meaning refugees would need to have family members in the region to settle.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz submitted a letter to the Trump administration last month consenting to refugees settling within the state. An outspoken critic of the president’s immigration policies, Walz said the letter that “The inn is not full in Minnesota.”

The Duluth News Tribune contributed to this report from the Duluth Courthouse.

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