Refugee Resettlement: Who Gets to Say Yes or No?

treating refugees as the problem is the problemIn September, President Trump ordered that states and counties opt in if they want to allow refugees to be resettled in their counties. If they do not act affirmatively to opt in, they will be treated as refusing refugee resettlement.

Across the country, most states and counties that have considered refugee resettlement have said yes. Republican as well as Democratic governors in 42 states have said yes to refugee resettlement. Only two counties (Beltrami in Minnesota and Appomattox in Virginia) and the state of Texas have said no to refugee resettlement.

County Choices: Yes, No, Don’t Know

Saying yes to refugees does not mean that refugees will be resettled in a county. Most counties never receive any refugees. Since 2015, only 25 of Minnesota’s 87 counties have received any refugees.

Saying no means that a county will not receive any refugees for resettlement this year. Saying nothing would also mean that a county would not receive any refugees.

What would they miss out on? One example: Pwe Ku came to Minnesota when he was six years old, after spending the first six years of his life in a refugee camp.

“’One thing people should know is that [refugees] don’t take things for granted,’ repeated Ku. ‘It’s a special opportunity. We have to work as hard as the first pilgrims when they came here, learning the environment, their surroundings. And although there are opportunities, there are side effects too. It’s good to be integrated into the American culture, but too much isn’t a good thing either. We try and live for the freedom that we’re given the best way we can and at the same time we are trying to give back to the American community.’”

Refugee resettlement agencies try to place refugees where they have family ties or communities from their home countries. Meeker County, where I grew up, has received zero refugees since 2015. Ramsey County, where I live now, has received 4,215 refugees in the same time period, more than half of the 8,128 total for Minnesota.

If Ramsey County said no to refugee resettlement, that would be a big deal. When Beltrami County says no, that’s news, but it doesn’t affect refugee resettlement. Beltrami County has not received any refugees in the past five years.

Because the administration has drastically cut the number of refugees, the number of refugees resettled in Minnesota last year was only 775. That number will probably be even smaller this year, as the administration again reduces the number of refugees allowed to enter the country.

How Does Refugee Resettlement Work?

Refugees flee their home countries because of war, violence, or persecution. They may be granted refugee status by the United Nations and may live in refugee camps. From those camps, they may apply for resettlement in another country. The application and vetting process usually takes years.

To apply for U.S. refugee status, they must be fleeing persecution or the threat of persecution “on account of race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”

Once they apply for resettlement, refugees go through lengthy and detailed background checks by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and FBI. They also receive extensive health screenings and cultural orientation. If they pass all of these tests, as well as interviews by U.S. immigration officers, then they may be approved for resettlement.

Most refugees spend years in refugee camps before being accepted for resettlement.

Sow Reh is a photographer and student in Austin, Minnesota. He came to the United States from a refugee campaign Thailand in 2018, after a three years of vetting. He describes his resettlement process:

“‘The process started with an application,’ Sow Reh said, counting on his fingers. ‘If you were accepted, then you were called for an interview with the Thai government. After that, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) interviewed you. If you passed all these interviews, then you were given a medical exam. Throughout the process, there was always the chance that something would not work out and I would have to start all over again. Luckily, I made it through each step. I’m really thankful for this.’

“Before leaving Thailand, there was a week of cultural orientation. During the week, they learned about the day-to-day life of people in the United States. Sow Reh learned about the American education system, retirement, how to stay safe in cases of emergencies, how to use stove tops, the laws of the United States and what happens if you commit a crime, and how to eat American food.”

A small number of agencies contract with the federal government to resettle refugees. Because of cuts in refugee numbers, many refugee resettlement programs have laid off staff or closed entirely.

When Must Counties Decide?

That’s complicated. The executive order goes into effect in June, so counties could take say yes any time before June. (Or they could say no. Or they could do nothing at all, which counts as a no vote under the executive order.)

Refugee resettlement agencies must tell the federal government where they plan to resettle refugees by January 21, so that puts pressure on them to ask for earlier county decisions. In Minnesota, refugee resettlement agencies have not asked every county for a decision, because they do not plan to resettle refugees in every county. They want to resettle refugees where they will be welcome, where they have family ties, where there are communities of other immigrants from their home countries, where they can find jobs and education.

The executive order requires state and county decisions every year.

A lawsuit challenging the executive order is currently before a federal court.

Primary versus Secondary Resettlement

Further complicating matters, “refugee resettlement” means primary resettlement: the first place that refugees are sent when they arrive in the United States.

After they arrive, like everyone else in the country, refugees are free to move wherever they choose. That is called secondary resettlement. That freedom of movement is not limited by any state or county decision.

Refugee Contributions

From the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dr. Edwige Mubonzi brought her medical expertise and her compassion for victims of violence. Eh Mwee uses the persistence that brought her through 22 years in a refugee camp to match workers with jobs and help them to succeed.  Solomon Paul, a refugee from Sudan, was resettled in Texas but ended up in Austin, MN, where he directs the city’s Welcome Center.  Kevin and Kunrath Lam own and operate St. Paul’s Cheng Heng restaurant, and give back through their contributions to charitable organizations in Minnesota and in their native Cambodia.

These refugees and hundreds of others enrich Minnesota and make the state better for everyone.

About Mary Turck

News Day, written by Mary Turck, analyzes, summarizes, links to, and comments on reports from news media around the world, with particular attention to immigration, education, and journalism. Fragments, also written by Mary Turck, has fiction, poetry and some creative non-fiction. Mary Turck edited TC Daily Planet,, from 2007-2014, and edited the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, in its pre-2008 version. She is also a recovering attorney and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues.
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