Posted on January 10, 2020

North Dakota was an Immigrant Haven — Until Trump was Elected

Jaweed Kaleem, Los Angeles Times, January 9, 2020

For decades, this conservative, predominantly white capital city has played host to refugees from around the world.

Immigrants greet shoppers at Walmart, process beef at the Cloverdale Foods plant, run the register at Arbys, clean the Holiday Inn and drive for Uber.

Nobody used to pay them much mind.

“Life was getting better,” said 20-year-old Tresor Mugwaneza, who settled here four years ago after fleeing war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and eventually enrolled at the University of Mary.

Things started to change with the 2016 election of President Trump, who has suggested that many refugees are criminals and has extolled his belief in putting “America first” by drastically reducing the number allowed to enter the United States.

The rhetoric has trickled down from Washington into smaller, quieter parts of the nation, as citizens and local politicians embrace it and places such as Bismarck start to reassess their relationship with the newcomers.

Now, because of a federal policy announced in September, the 49 states and 600 counties that have welcomed refugees — only Wyoming has never taken part in federal resettlement efforts — each have the power to decide whether to continue doing so.

Just a year ago, the biggest controversy in Bismarck — home to most of the 95,000 people in Burleigh County — was whether to allow the construction of a wind farm. That was nothing compared to the debate that erupted over immigrants.


The mayor, Steve Bakken, became a leading proponent of closing the door on more refugees, arguing that homeless veterans need help more than those fleeing war on another continent.

“If we can’t meet the needs of people here, why bring new ones in?” he said in an interview.

In early December, when the Burleigh County Commission gathered to vote on whether it would continue to take in refugees, so many people showed up that the vote had to be rescheduled for a week later in a larger venue.

People such as Mugwaneza were accused of being freeloaders or “illegals.”


The national debate over immigration and refugees has centered on the tens of thousands of Central Americans who have arrived on the southern U.S. border claiming asylum.

North Dakota sits roughly 1,300 miles north of the Rio Grande. Here, most of the refugees are from Bhutan, Iraq, Somalia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

They arrived over the years with the assistance of Lutheran Social Services, which partners with one of just nine nonprofits across the country that are federally authorized to resettle people who receive visas as refugees.

The federal government decides how many to admit each year. The nonprofits help figure out where they go.

California, New York and other large, diverse states take in the most. But a disproportionately large share wind up in many smaller, redder regions, including North Dakota, which over the last decade has resettled 4,050 refugees. In several years, its total per capita was the highest in the nation.


In his last year in office, President Obama agreed to allow in 110,000 refugees, the most since Congress launched the current refugee resettlement program in 1980. President Trump has lowered that number each year — down to 18,000 for the fiscal year that will end in September.

The numbers arriving in North Dakota have fallen dramatically. In 2019, it took in 126, including 25 — all Congolese or Ukrainian — who landed in Bismarck.

As for which places around the country will continue to accept refugees, states and counties have until the end of this month to let the federal government know where they stand. Some 40 states and dozens of counties have consented with little debate or protest.

In North Dakota, where Trump won 63% of the vote, the Republican governor, Doug Burgum, signaled his support for business as usual. “North Dakota has had success at integrating refugees,” he wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo.

But the new federal policy gives local communities the right to go against their state’s wishes. Burleigh County began to seriously consider doing just that.

The reaction surprised Turdukan Tostokova, a resettlement coordinator at Lutheran Social Services who immigrated here from Kyrgyzstan 20 years ago after marrying a local elementary school teacher and eventually became a U.S. citizen.


On a Tuesday night last month, Mugwaneza put on a white hoodie and drove with his old soccer teammates from high school to Horizon Middle School, where the County Commission was holding its rescheduled vote.

Hundreds of Bismarck residents were packed into the auditorium.

Some wore red shirts and MAGA hats, while others came with homemade red, white and blue signs that said, “I vote welcome.”

They lined up to address the five commissioners. Mugwaneza went to the back to wait his turn and listen.


And after four hours of testimony, the commission finally voted: 3 to 2 in favor of refugees.

There were caveats. The commissioners decided to cap the number of newcomers allowed each year at 25. And they ordered the Lutheran refugee agency to submit a report each year on where refugees came from and how much money was spent on them.


Counties must renew their consent each year, and opponents in Bismarck are keeping tensions high by starting to campaign for the next vote.


The outcome was the same in nearly every other county — even those that voted for Trump — that has taken up the issue.

Only two counties have said no. But since neither Appomattox County in Virginia, population 15,000, nor Beltrami County in Minnesota, population 45,000, has settled refugees in recent years, their decisions have been largely symbolic.