N.D. county weighs being first in U.S. to bar new refugees

James Macpherson
Associated Press

Bismarck, N.D. — Reuben Panchol was forced to leave war-torn Sudan decades ago as a child, embarking on an odyssey that eventually brought him to the American Midwest and left him eternally grateful to the country that took him in.

“I am an American citizen, a North Dakotan,” said Panchol, a 38-year-old father of four. “And without North Dakota, I couldn’t have made it.”

Panchol hopes to share his story on Monday with members of a local commission who are set to vote on whether their county will stop accepting refugees. If they vote to bar refugees, as expected, Burleigh County — home to about 95,000 people and the capital city of Bismarck — could become the first local government to do so since President Donald Trump issued an executive order making it possible.

Reuben Panchol, who immigrated from Sudan to North Dakota as a child, says he hopes to tell his personal story at a meeting Monday, Dec. 9 at which the Burleigh County Commission may vote against accepting any new refugees.

The county postponed a vote last week when more than 100 people showed up and overflowed the commission’s normal meeting space. Monday night’s meeting will be held in a middle school cafeteria to accommodate public interest that Chairman Brian Bitner said is the most intense he’s seen in more than a decade on the commission.

Though he declined to predict which way the commission would go, Bitner said he would vote against accepting additional refugees.

“The overwhelming public opinion is so clear to me, that I think if you vote for it, you’re not going to be reelected if you choose to run again,” he said.

Trump’s executive order this fall came as he had already proposed cutting the number of refugees next year to the lowest level since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980. He declared that refugees should be resettled only in places where the state and local governments — counties — gave consent. Since then, many governors and counties around the country have declared that they would continue taking refugees.

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum said last month that North Dakota would continue accepting refugees where local jurisdictions agreed, and his spokesman said the governor saw it as a local decision. Soon after, Cass and Grand Forks counties, which are home to the state’s largest city, Fargo, and third-largest city, Grand Forks, respectively, declared they would continue taking refugees. Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said refugees were needed to boost the city’s economy, and that 90% were fully employed within three months of resettling in his city.

But the idea was quickly opposed in more conservative Burleigh County. Among the opponents was Republican state Rep. Rick Becker, of Bismarck, an ultraconservative who took to social media to criticize the program as unrestrained and a possible drain on social service programs, schools and law enforcement, though the county said it doesn’t track any costs directly related to refugees.

“This isn’t about skin color,” said Becker, a plastic surgeon and former gubernatorial candidate. “In the past, nobody had any say whatsoever. Now we have something that should have been in place decades ago.

“Now, if they want to accept them, they can, and if they don’t want to they shouldn’t,” he said.

Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken said the city government has no say in the matter, but he sides with those who want to stop taking in more refugees.

“Right now it’s a blank check and that equates into a lot of questions,” Bakken said of the number of refugees that could be placed in the area. “We have burgeoning school enrollment, veterans’ needs, homeless needs, and Native American needs.

“This isn’t about heartstrings, this is about purse strings,” he said.