Most Americans would be too ashamed to intentionally rile up their neighbors over nothing. Unfortunately, our current President, Donald Trump, is shameless in so many ways, which is why hundreds of St. Louis County residents have been up in arms in recent days over a proposed county board motion that would keep the county open to refugee resettlement.
It’s a fight over nothing, ginned up by a President and his campaign tacticians who are willing to use fear and misunderstanding to divide Americans over issues invented from whole cloth. Let’s be clear. There is no (repeat, NO) plan to bring refugees to St. Louis County, and the possible passage of the motion presented to the county board last week does not change that. The only reason that the motion was presented is because President Trump required it as part of an executive order that he issued last September. Under his order, counties and states are now required to pass a motion declaring whether they will, or will not, accept vetted, legal refugees within their borders.
No such declaration was ever required before, largely because the declarations are all but meaningless. St. Louis County, like virtually every county in the United States, has long been open to refugees, albeit purely in a technical sense. For practical reasons, refugees are invariably placed in communities where resettlement services are available to them, which has typically limited them to urban centers. St. Louis County, like most predominantly rural counties, hasn’t seen a refugee resettled within its borders in years, and passage of a motion declaring the county “open” to resettlement won’t change that.
This, of course, isn’t really about refugees. President Trump’s executive order was a campaign tactic designed to bolster his re-election effort by fanning the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment and mobilizing and organizing those who fear immigrants. Because of Trump’s action, Americans in every state and county across the country are waging pitched and angry battles over an insignificant issue that most don’t even understand.
Unfortunately, it’s just another example of the misinformation that is constantly fed into the national conversation around so many issues by people interested solely in manipulating others for their own benefit. And it isn’t just nationally. Closer to home, misguided individuals are spreading false rumors about imagined plots to fill our own local communities with Somali refugees, stirring up animosity and division over made-up issues. It’s no wonder that our country has become so divided.
Perhaps the saddest part of this story is that St. Louis County- indeed, all of northern Minnesota- could actually use some refugees. Our businesses are desperate for the work force and our stagnant and aging population could well cost us the Eighth Congressional District, which is at risk of elimination following reapportionment after the 2020 census.
While some of those who spoke at last week’s county board meeting in Duluth expressed fears about the public cost of allowing refugees to settle in the area, in truth refugees very quickly become contributing members to society and the tax base. While some refugees are poor and have limited education, they’re the exception, not the rule. In many cases, refugees are better educated than most Americans and come from cultures where self-sufficiency is a matter of pride. Far from the portrait painted by the fear-mongers, refugees work hard to better themselves, their families, and to achieve the same American Dream that brought most of our immigrant ancestors to this country.
It’s worth remembering the poignant words in the late Tom Rukavina’s last public statement, which appeared in a letter to the editor he wrote for this newspaper shortly before his death. He was being treated at the University of Minnesota for a rare form of leukemia and he wrote of the many immigrants who took care of him in any number of ways during his time there. Among them were the housekeepers who came to clean his room. “They are Somali or Ethiopian or Liberian,” Rukavina wrote. “One was a male who stopped emptying the wastebaskets and talked to us. About how he came from Ethiopia five years ago because of tribal conflicts. He already had a master’s degree in chemistry and is now working two jobs while going to school to become a pharmacist so he can give his three children a college education. He was particularly proud of his four-year-old daughter whose teacher told him was extremely intelligent. He told us his dream is that she will grow up to do something good for her country – this country, America.”
That’s the real story of America, the land of immigrants and refugees— and those are words to remember as we call out those who endeavor to keep us divided and afraid.