SALT LAKE CITY — More than 500 people showed up for the vote, held in a middle school cafeteria in Burleigh County, North Dakota, on Dec. 9. The small county’s decision was of national significance: it was poised to be the first local government in the nation to bar refugees.
In September, President Trump signed an executive order that for the first time allowed states and local governments to opt out of accepting refugees, and Burleigh County stood to be the first community to take advantage of the new rules. (In the end, after passionate testimony from community members on both sides, the Burleigh County Commission narrowly voted to allow 25 refugees to be admitted to the county this year).
The executive order was the latest in a series of steps the Trump administration has taken to reduce the number of refugees — people who have been forced to flee their country due to persecution — resettled in the United States. Trump has slashed annual refugee admission numbers from 110,000 at the end of the Obama administration to 18,000 this year. Meanwhile, states such as Utah and Arizona have affirmed their commitment to resettling refugees, even writing to the Trump administration to request that more refugees be resettled in their state.
“The world hasn’t seen this many refugees since World War II,” said Jacob Vigdor, professor of public policy and governance at the University of Washington, noting that there are 65 million refugees in the world, according to the United Nations. “Against this backdrop, the Trump administration is making it harder for refugees to enter the country.”
The vote was a flash point in a larger, ongoing national conversation in the U.S. about refugee resettlement, and the first test case for the potential impact of Trump’s executive order. It won’t be the last, predicts Vigdor.
“Each county across the USA will have a chance to decide whether it will accept any at all,” said Vigdor. “The commissioners of Burleigh County, North Dakota, barely voted to continue accepting 25 refugees a year. It’s only a matter of time before some county somewhere decides it won’t accept any.”
Executive order ‘fanned the flames of divisiveness’
The United States has historically led the world in refugee resettlement, taking in more than 3 million of the total 4 million refugees accepted across the globe in the past three decades, as part of a policy called the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program that has existed since 1980.
The program is federal. But Trump’s September executive order gives states and local governments more power to decide whether to accept refugees, stating that it aims to enhance “state and local involvement in refugee resettlement.”
“State and local governments are best positioned to know the resources and capacities they may or may not have available,” the order said, “which maximizes the likelihood refugees placed in the area will become self-sufficient and free from long-term dependence on public assistance.”
The theme of state resources came up in the public hearing in North Dakota.
“We have burgeoning school enrollment, veterans’ needs, homeless need and Native American needs,” Burleigh County Mayor Steve Bakken told The Associated Press before the vote. “This isn’t about heartstrings, this is about purse strings.”
But the State Department, resettlement agencies and local officials are already highly coordinated with one another to determine which areas are best equipped to provide resources to refugees, said Jessica Darrow, refugee studies lecturer at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.
“The process of resettlement already called for local resettlement agencies to consult a wide array of local stakeholders, including government, before determining how many refugees to resettle in any locality each year,” she said. “So this new executive order does not achieve more communication or interaction with local stakeholders.”
Rather than help states resettle refugees, the order simply gives states an unprecedented power: the ability to ban refugees altogether, she said.
The executive order could also create major problems for the current system, said Darrow. For example, a refugee whose entire family has been settled in one city, may be banned from joining them if that particular city bans refugees. A refugee settled in one city could be prevented from traveling or relocating to a different city. And cities and states could potentially get into jurisdictional battles if a city is willing to accept a refugee but the state is not, or visa versa.
It is not economics but politics that is at the heart of the executive order, said Karen Musalo, professor and director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.
“By giving local communities the opportunity to say no, (the Trump administration) has fanned the flames of divisiveness,” said Musalo. “This community’s decision to accept refugees — even if only a relatively small number — has symbolic importance in rejecting policies which deny our humanity and solidarity across borders.”
Not in Utah
While Burleigh County, North Dakota, nearly voted to ban refugees, other states have taken a completely opposite approach: asking the Trump administration to give them more refugees.
Utah is one of them. In November, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert asked Trump to send more refugees to the state that was originally founded by religious refugees fleeing persecution.
“Gov. Herbert is deeply concerned that fewer refugees have been permitted into the United States in recent years,” his spokeswoman, Anna Lehnardt, told the Deseret News in November.
“We hope he will help us increase the number of refugees sent to Utah, so that we can offer a new homeland to the same number of individuals and families that we have in the past. Even if other states choose to use the president’s new policies to refuse entrance to refugees, we will not,” Lehnardt said.
Utah has historically accepted more than 1,000 refugees each year, but Trump administration policies have caused those numbers to sharply decline to less than 500 in 2018 and 2019, Aden Batar, director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Community Services of Utah, told the Deseret News in November.
Refugee resettlement is about more than humanitarianism, says Natalie El-Deiry, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City. It’s also about economics.
States which choose to opt out of refugee resettlement may suffer significant financial losses, according to a December 2019 report from the New American Economy Research Fund.
“We find that a state may be risking millions of dollars in income and additional economic stimulus — just by opting out for one year,” the report stated. “These millions of dollars would also come on top of the direct loss of federal funding for refugee resettlement — money that is usually spent locally, supporting local businesses and the economy.”
Arizona, for example, could face $9.1 million in losses if it chose to stop resettling refugees, according to the report. Refugees’ entrepreneurial nature and desire to integrate into their new communities is an economic benefit to states and cities — not a burden, said El-Deiry.
“When we say we don’t want to welcome refugees, it is a fiscal loss, in addition to the human loss,” she said. “These are people who add so much value and diversity to the fabric of our society, people who are teachers, public servants and restaurant owners, all of whom contribute to our economy and community.”