WORTHINGTON — Nobles, Murray and Pipestone county commissioners, during board meetings Tuesday, approved letters of consent to accept refugee resettlement within their borders.
Three other counties in the far southwest corner of the state — Rock, Jackson and Cottonwood — have not received requests from resettlement organizations to act on the issue.
The formal consent was required of counties to continue to accept resettled refugees after May 31. The action is the result of a Sept. 26, 2019 executive order (13888) issued by President Donald Trump.
During a Nobles County Board of Commissioners work session last week, representatives from United Community Action Partnership (UCAP) were on hand to discuss resettlement and answer questions regarding the executive order. The agency, based in Marshall with offices in seven Minnesota counties — including Jackson — was approached in 2014 by Catholic Charities to offer a remote placement program, assisting refugee resettlement in Greater Minnesota.
“What we had been seeing is that refugees were being resettled in the metro area, even though that wasn’t their choice,” said Michelle Jensen, family services manager at UCAP in Jackson. “Then they came to rural areas.”
Refugees receive $1,175 to help them during their first 90 days. That money generally stays in the county where they arrive and helps them pay for food, clothing and housing, among other necessities. By authorizing refugee resettlement in southwest Minnesota counties, the refugees can come here immediately, get the funding to spend locally and get the help they need from local agencies.
Samira Sheikh, refugee resettlement case manager at UCAP’s Marshall office, said she uses the 90 days to assist refugees in securing housing, getting children enrolled in school, doing cultural orientation, scheduling a detailed health exam and assisting adult refugees with applications for work permits and Social Security cards.
In Minnesota, approximately 95% of refugees who arrive settle with family who already reside here.
“We never get families who want to settle here randomly,” Sheikh said of the refugees she’s worked with.
The number of refugee resettlements in far southwest Minnesota is relatively low — 29 in Nobles County during the past five years, one in Pipestone County and four in Murray County.
Nationwide, approximately $63 billion has been dedicated in the last decade to refugee resettlement.
“It makes sense to have those dollars spent in our communities,” Jensen said.
Sheikh noted that all of the families resettled by UCAP are work-eligible.
“We do employment search with them and have employment services assist us,” she told commissioners, adding that many of the refugees find housing with relatives already living in a rural area. “In Nobles County, all of the refugees were employed within the first 60 days.”
Sheikh, a refugee whose family fled Somalia in 1993 due to civil war, said most of the refugees coming to southwest Minnesota have been in refugee camps in a location that is not their home country.
“Whoever’s been there the longest gets to apply for settlement,” she said, adding that she was only a few years old when she fled with family members. Previously, her older sisters were smuggled out of Somalia to escape becoming wives to warlords.
“My sister was 15 or 16 and one of the older warlords decided he wanted her,” Sheikh told commissioners last week. “My dad disagreed and was beaten within an inch of his life. There was nothing he could do.
“My sister decided she was going to commit suicide and drank some medication,” she continued. If it wasn’t for the quick actions of her mother, a nurse, her sister may not have survived.
It was then that they found a way to get her smuggled out to safety.
“A few years later, my sisters — when they reached that age — were smuggled out,” Sheikh said.
Sheikh ended up in a refugee camp in Kenya, and in 1997 she was selected for refugee resettlement to the United States. They arrived in Houston, Texas, and with one of her sisters — who’d arrived in the U.S. earlier — settled in Minnesota. They chose to move north to be near family.
Refugee status is given to individuals who were forced to flee their home country due to violence or persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Resettled refugees undergo extensive screening/vetting; more than 70% of refugees are women and children, according to information provided by UCAP.
Resettled refugees have legal permanent status in the U.S., can work immediately upon arrival and are on a pathway to citizenship after five years.
Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson said he has received a couple of calls regarding the refugee resettlement issue, and said people are confusing refugee resettlement with immigration.
“It’s not related to documented or undocumented individuals,” he said during Tuesday’s Nobles County board meeting.
As of Monday, the Minnesota Department of Human Services reported 10 counties in the state had submitted letters providing consent to accept refugee resettlement. Public Information Officer Katie Bauer said an additional 15 counties are either in the process of submitting a letter or have meetings this month to consider action on the matter.