by CHRIS ROGERS
The Winona County Board will hold a public hearing late this month before deciding whether to opt in to accept refugees under a federal refugee resettlement program. A recent executive order from President Donald Trump requires both states and counties to opt in in order to officially host incoming refugees and receive federal funding for resettlement programs.
Refugees are people fleeing violence or persecution in their home countries. Under federal law, to claim asylum and be accepted into the U.S., refugees must demonstrate “a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Minnesota has long welcomed refugees from the civil war in Somalia and Hmong people who faced reprisals for fighting on the side of Americans during the Vietnam War, for example.
In response to the executive order, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz affirmed that the state government wants to receive refugees. Now county governments across the state are voting on whether to opt in.
For Winona County, the question of whether to opt in may have more symbolic than practical importance. First, Winona County has not received any refugee placements in recent years, according to Project FINE, a Winona County nonprofit serving refugees and immigrants, and Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota, one of the area’s primary refugee resettlement agencies. The Trump administration has cut back the maximum number of refugees that will be accepted into the U.S. as a whole to 18,000 in 2020 — a historic low, down from around 70,000 in the 2000s and early 2010s, according to Pew Research. With so few refugees granted asylum nationwide, the chances of Winona County receiving any refugees this year is low, Project FINE Executive Director Fatima Said stated. “I don’t think that you will get many because 18,000 is such a small number for 50 states, but I think maybe some will come to Minnesota and we’ll be lucky to get a few,” Said told the County Board.
Secondly, opting in primarily influences federal funding, not where refugees may choose to live. Even if a county does not opt in to the refugee resettlement program, refugees living in the U.S. are still free to move to that county. Failure to opt in would just prevent agencies such as Catholic Charities from providing federally funded assistance for incoming refugees. That federal program allows Catholic Charities to help refugees find housing, jobs, education, and other basic needs in their first 90 days in the U.S. Some refugees chose to move to Winona County for jobs or to be with family — where they will not be eligible for the same resettlement aid — but the area has not received official placements in recent years, Said explained.
Even though Winona County may not receive many refugees, Said hoped the County Board would vote to open its doors. “It does make a big difference for people who live in this community because that will show us that we will live in a community that is open-minded and inclusive and that we really want to welcome people in need,” she said. It’s not just about helping people, Said added. Winona and the rest of Southeast Minnesota are facing a major workforce shortage that is expected to worsen as the population ages. Local employers need people to fill jobs and are trying to get people to move to the area. “They’re all crying and calling for more people in our community,” Said stated.
Said is a refugee herself. She and her husband came to Minnesota after fleeing the Bosnian civil war in the 1990s, when Serbian forces killed religious and ethnic minorities. “I’m extremely grateful to our Constitution, to our state, and to the United States of America for giving me an opportunity for a new life,” she said. “My heart goes to all those displaced people because I am one of them,” Said added.
The County Board had been prepared to vote yesterday to accept refugees, but the board agreed to hold a public hearing first after Don Evanson, a Rollingstone Township resident and former Planning Commission member, raised concerns. President Trump’s intention with this executive order was to give citizens a voice in the matter, Evanson argued. Evanson said he was disturbed that the county had not held a public hearing to give people a chance to weigh in first.
At County Board member Steve Jacob’s suggestion, the board unanimously agreed to hold a public hearing on January 28 before voting on the matter. State officials indicated the deadline for opting in is January 31.
County Board member Marie Kovecsi said she would support opting in. “Winona County is a Welcoming Community,” Kovecsi said, referring to the county’s membership in a program that pledges to welcome refugees and immigrants.
“These are legal refugees. They’re vetted,” County Board member Marcia Ward noted.
In an interview, Jacob said he does not have any concerns about opting in. “These are legal refugees. They aren’t illegal aliens or anything like that,” he noted. “I just thought it was fair we have a spot on our agenda for someone who is in support of it, it makes sense that we’d provide an opportunity for people who were concerned,” he said of the public hearing.
The County Board will meet at 7 p.m. on January 28 at the Winona County Office Building, 202 West Third Street in Winona.