Big Changes Could Be Coming to Refugee Resettlement in North Dakota

ND Rep Chris Olson introduced a bill a that could bring big changes to refugee resettlement in North Dakota. Rep Olson discussed his bill on Point of View.

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

(Please note - this transcript was copied from an electronic captioning service. We apologize for any errors, spelling, grammatical, or otherwise.)

Chris Berg:
Brand-new bill introduced in North Dakota regarding refugee resettlement that would increase transparency and also empower local communities to really hold Lutheran Social Services more accountable for your tax dollars. Good evening and welcome to "Point of View." I'm Chris Berg. Thank you so much for joining us here tonight.

Whenever people come up to me and talk to me, a lot of people do about refugee resettlement here in our community, what they ultimately say is just give me the data. Just tell me the truth. If refugee resettlement is great for our community, all right. Let's do more. If it's not great for our community, I just want to have the data to better understand what exactly is taking place in our communities with this program. So North Dakota Representative Chris Olson out of West Fargo has crafted a bill to really make big changes to refugee resettlement right here in North Dakota. Representative Olson, great to see you. Thank you so much for joining us, sir. This bill was just introduced. What I want to know from you is, when you look at this, what's the single most important thing you would like to see this bill accomplish?

Rep. Chris Olson:
Chris, is that we need to have a deeper community discussion so that the people of North Dakota and the local communities can feel that they're being represented in the question of what the refugee resettlement program is. And we need to have that conversation so that individuals can have a trust in government and feel like they're part of the process.

CB:
As you know, this can be a very divisive issue. So just gonna flat out ask you. Is there any part of this bill, any part of you that wants to stop refugee resettlement all together here in North Dakota?

CO:
No, Chris, that's not a decision for me to make. And ultimately that's not a decision for any state to make. The refugee resettlement program was initiated by Congress under Republican administration back in the 1980s. And President Reagan was the one who signed it. So back at that time, provisions were put into the bill, into the law that required close consultation with state and local governments to determine what is the optimal capacity, what are the numbers of refugees that should be resettled in any particular area. And so as part of the close consultation provisions of the federal law, it's required for the feds to take into account the impact that refugee resettlement is having on any local community.

So what we're looking to do with this bill is to codify into state law requirements that are already in place under federal law, for close consultation and additionally to report to state and local leadership what the optimal numbers are going to be for refugee resettlement in the state. So we have to take multiple factors into account in order to accomplish that. We obviously can't take an incident number of refugee noose our community, so the question we need to answer is what is the optimal number? The only way to arrive at that is by having these local conversations.

CB:
So one of the things I'm curious about. I don't know if you reached out to LSS yourself to try to get data. What I'm hearing you say we just want to have the cold hard facts in front of us so one, have you reached that LLS to get more transparency, to get more data? And how is that process been for you personally?

CB:
I've had multiple conversations with representatives from Lutheran social services. They've been generally cooperative with me and I think the information is there. We just need to put something into place that will cause these meetings to take place and to ensure that the information is being transmitted to the local and state leadership on a regular basis. There are many legislators who presently have really no understanding of what the program consists of, what the numbers look like, and so since the legislature is the appropriating branch of the government for the state of North Dakota, we really have to be much more informed as to what is actually happening at the local level.

One thing that comes immediately to mind is English language learner program. We have a serious underfunding problem for that in my school district that I represent and also in every other major school district in the state. And so Fargo and West Fargo are currently not receiving the federal and state funds necessary to cover the total cost of the program. It's just a very small percentage and that number is going down with the budget crunch. So these are issues that we need to take a look at because we owe it to the existing population of refugees who are in the state to give them our best. We want them to have the best services that we have to offer, but in order for us to ensure that we're actually doing that, we need to know what the capacities are and we need to have this conversation and make sure that we're meeting our obligations at the state and local level.

CB:
Chris, I got two minutes. I got two more questions to get to. One would be this, good news is I hear that LSS has by no means tried to stalwart you or give you data when you requested to. Hopefully that's accurate. Number two, everyone knows this is a federal program. So it's great you're going to have a state law. But as you know as well as I do, federal law trumps state law. Will this bill have any teeth knowing this is a federal program?

CO:
Well, this bill doesn't trump federal law, but what it does is it provides local communities with the ability to request a moratorium. And the moratorium provision is also extended to the governors, the governors have made such a determination. The reason for including that provision is not that they should use it, but that they should have the ability to have a veto on any plan that should ever be developed so that the optimal number can be arrived at so that everybody can feel like they've been represented at the table and that the number that we've agreed on is really number that we all agree on. We can then submit that back to the federal government and say, this is the number that we want. Now, in the past, we haven't had a very cooperative federal administration and they would not listen to states that made any determination regarding the numbers or the operation of the plan itself, but under a Trump administration, we're hoping that the federal government will listen to the requests of the state and take them into account when his office will be making the determination of how many refugees to send to the various --

CB:
Representative Olson, I've got 30 seconds. You just introduced this bill. People out there that are listening, this is a very, very hot topic. What can people do to get involved with this bill and see how it moves forward?

CO:
The biggest thing is get involved at the local level. You need to go to your county commission meetings, city commission meetings and you need to get county, city, school districts, school board officials involved in the conversation and insure that your elected representatives are taking part in this. For too long, we haven't been taking part in this discussion and that's part of the reason there is so much of a debate is we haven't been a part of the discussion. So I encourage everybody to reach out to their local leadership and become the part of the discussion.

CB:
Transparency and accountability always good things in my book. Representative Chris Olson, thank you for your time, sir.

CO:
Thank you, Chris.



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