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A recent refugee was among the Burleigh County, North Dakota who spoke out Monday night against a proposal to bar asylum-seekers from the county in the coming year. (Photo: Reuters/screenshot)

At Emotional Meeting, North Dakota Residents Talk County Officials Out of Trumpian Plan to Ban Refugees

"We are not coming to North Dakota to rob anybody," said one young refugee at the hearing. "Hell, we have been robbed—of our childhood. We have been robbed of a lot of things."

Julia Conley

At a standing-room-only meeting on Monday evening, residents of Burleigh Country, North Dakota, rejected a proposal that would have made the county the first in the nation to refuse entry to refugees.

After hearing from more than 50 residents including recent refugees, business owners, and Indigenous people who addressed the more than 500 community members at the meeting, the county commission voted 3-2 to allow up to 25 refugees to resettle in Burleigh County in the coming year.

While better than the total ban some members of the commission were pushing for, the number is far less than the 540 people who came to North Dakota from around the world in 2016. That year, 42 refugees were resettled in Burleigh County.

Refugee resettlement has plummeted nationwide under President Donald Trump, who signed an executive order in September requiring state and local governments to give written consent before any refugees would be allowed to settle in their communities.

Residents spoke both in favor of and against the resettlement plan. Tresor Mugawaneza, a college sophomore who in 2015 came to Burleigh County—which includes North Dakota's capital of Bismarck—as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, spoke about the opportunities afforded to him in the state and shared that the consideration of the proposal made him question how welcome he really is in his new home.

"Since I arrived in this country I feel like I finally have a home, until I heard about this refugee thing," Mugawaneza said. "I started asking myself many questions, trying to figure out where I actually belong. The joy that I have had in this country is enormous and I wish my fellow refugees to come here as well."

After one man called on commissioners to prioritize helping homeless Indigenous people in Burleigh County over resettling refugees, an Indigenous woman spoke out against the use of local tribes to argue against observing asylum seekers' rights.

"Do not say that Indigenous peoples are at risk of the refugees," the woman said. "Indigenous peoples have been at risk and are still at risk due to the impact of colonization. I'm here in support of those who seek refuge in our home of North Dakota. To the humans who seek refuge in North Dakota, you are not alone."

"We are not coming to North Dakota to rob anybody," said one young refugee at the hearing. "Hell, we have been robbed—of our childhood. We have been robbed of a lot of things. We have starved. We have seen war. We have suffered. We have been hungry. So coming to North Dakota is a privilege."

The room broke out in applause as the commission voted in favor of permitting new refugees in the county.

The vote won praise from observers who had been concerned Burleigh County could set a new precedent, following Trump's lead in rejecting refugees and immigrants.

"Good work Burleigh County!" tweeted state Rep. Joshua Boschee. "Huge shout out to the residents who showed up tonight in force to stand up for their neighbors, friends, co-workers, family and our fellow North Dakotans!"

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