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North Dakota County Votes To Continue Accepting Refugees

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An executive order from the Trump administration seeks to give local officials the authority to reject refugees in their communities. Burleigh County, N.D., considered whether to become the first in the nation to do that, but after emotional testimony, county commissioners rejected that motion - just barely. Dave Thompson of Prairie Public has this report.

DAVE THOMPSON, BYLINE: Burleigh County includes the state capital, Bismarck. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum had already agreed to accept refugees in the state, and with the governor's endorsement, it fell to the county commission to accept refugee resettlement. Two North Dakota counties, Grand Forks and Cass, have already agreed to take refugees. Lutheran Social Services manages the resettlement program.

An overflow crowd, estimated at 200 or more, came to a local middle school to hear the discussion and sound off on the proposal. Tresor Mugwaneza was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He came to America at age 16 and is now in college pursuing a degree while working at a local restaurant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRESOR MUGWANEZA: We are not in this country just to take your government money; in fact, we are here to work and be successful in life, just like everyone else here.

THOMPSON: Geraldine Ambe is a refugee from Cameroon. She asked commissioners to consider what refugees mean to the county.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GERALDINE AMBE: I'm going to stop here by challenging everybody. Tonight, when you leave here, go to Walmart and see how many of them are stocking your shelves at Walmart while you sleep. Then you will know what we are talking about. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

THOMPSON: Opponents say they were concerned about the cost of bringing refugees to the area and what impact it might have on local schools. Luke Lengenfelder is from Bismarck.

LUKE LENGENFELDER: But I'd like to see, before we bring in more people, if we're spending money, taxpayer dollars, to bring these people in, can we spend that money to help the people that are already here first?

THOMPSON: When it came time to take a vote, the commission approved it 3 to 2. Commissioner Jerry Woodcox was a yes vote with a stipulation that Burleigh County accept only up to 25 refugees in the next year.

JERRY WOODCOX: When you see the success of the refugees that have been here for 20 years, and it's been a long-term program that's done an excellent job, and I was convinced that that was what we were going to be doing.

THOMPSON: Commission Chairman Brian Bitner voted no, saying he did not have enough information.

BRIAN BITNER: I need to know what this costs, I mean, altogether, because it seems to me we kind of give a blank check as American citizens to refugee resettlement. And I'd like to know more about what it actually costs.

THOMPSON: The decision has to be renewed every year. For NPR News, I'm Dave Thompson in Bismarck, N.D.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRTWIRE'S "POLAR VORTEX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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