Refugee debate strays from reality

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

I recently spoke with a Northern Minnesota military veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In casual conversation he described his efforts to help an Iraqi translator and his family get to America. This Iraqi man took enormous personal risk to work alongside U.S. forces. Now, he and his loved ones face even greater threats from Al Qaida militants.

My friend said the situation is uncertain. Our current political climate is keeping almost everyone out of our country — no matter who, no matter why. In any event, the family of this Iraqi man who helped Americans has a lot to lose.

Oxford Dictionary defines “refugee” as “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.” In legal terms, “refugee” is a more exclusive classification than “immigrant,” which is “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.” Today many people hear “refugee” and inaccurately think of an illegal immigrant rather than a Jewish family fleeing the Holocaust during WWII.

“We shall share in the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression,” said President Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican. His administration oversaw more refugee resettlement than his successors of either party. This, despite the fact that Reagan actually tightened the criteria to become a refugee, instead classifying many from war-torn countries as migrants and sending them back.

In the last couple weeks two northern Minnesota counties made headlines for their respective actions on whether to accept resettlement of refugees. Beltrami County voted to block resettlement. St. Louis County voted to table the issue until May.

Both county boards faced an onslaught of public comments at their meetings, or by phone and e-mail. According to reports most feedback was strongly opposed to allowing refugees to settle in these counties.

That’s where the story starts to unravel. Because, for all the outrage, there are no organized refugee resettlement programs in either place.

Data reporter Greta Kaul of MinnPost reported in a Jan. 9 analysis that St. Louis County resettled just one refugee from 2009 to 2018. Beltrami, Itasca, Koochiching, Lake and Cook counties didn’t resettle any refugees during that time. 

In truth, the only reason this debate is happening — at all — is because of an executive order by President Trump requiring every county in the United States to vote on whether they will accept legal refugee resettlements. It’s liquid controversy, delivered by fire hose, pumped into our social media feeds. And that’s probably why the order was given. It divides our communities, forcing people to “take sides” on a nonsensical argument. Ultimately, it distracts us from the real problems we have in rural Minnesota.

In fact, no vote taken by any county board will change much about where refugees settle if they come to America. And refugees who are here will remain free to move wherever they want. Though it’s not likely they’d move somewhere where people scowl at them. (In this, refugees aren’t much different than young Americans or entrepreneurs).

What motivates this issue are the fear, anger and resentment that come from a world that changes against our will. Those very real feelings are being exploited to turn us against each other and those in need.

So let’s check the logic of some of the claims reported in the refugee debate.

Claim: “Refugees will drain public resources.”

Reality: No comprehensive data show this to be true. It’s largely a generalization that comes from the notion that refugees are impoverished or belong to groups falsely stereotyped as “lazy.” In fact, no group of people are more motivated to work, buy a house, and rebuild a life than refugees. Only a brief period of assistance is necessary, mostly in the form of education and job placement. Most refugees were professionals in their old lives and are likely to produce generations of motivated professionals now.

An iron ore miner in 1907. Most of the early workforce on the Mesabi Iron Range was foreign born.

The evidence of my claim can be found in our early 20th Century Iron Range ancestors. Slavs fled inscription in the Austrian Army. Italians fled political sectionalism. Finns escaped both sides of their civil war. Many of their progeny went on to start businesses, become doctors and serve as mayors, senators and county commissioners right here in our community.

Claim: “Northern Minnesota ‘can’t handle’ new refugees.”

Reality: The real estate listings tell me that housing is available. For the last three decades our region’s schools have been emptied by declining enrollment. Our local businesses need customers. Local business owners tell me they struggle to find people willing to work hard who can pass drug tests. Nothing would provide as much meaningful economic stability as *more people.* So, I struggle to understand what is really meant by this claim.

I’ve spent the past four years researching Hibbing history of 1900-1926. Most of the things said about refugees in the recent debate were said about Eastern Europeans, Italians and Finns back then. Important men held meetings to complain about the smell of garlic on the Mesaba Railway Interurban passenger cars.

It was ugly nonsense 100 years ago. It still is.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and is the creator of the Great Northern Radio Show which aired for eight years on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Steve Timmer says

    A good piece, Aaron. A lot of people in northern Minnesota (and elsewhere in the state obviously, too) must have heard parents or grandparents talk about these things. The “local option” offered by the administration is obviously an ungracious attempt to create a new wedge issue, as if immigration wasn’t enough of one already.

    I think, perhaps, unless the Slavs were turned into ink and etched on tanks, you meant “conscription.”

  2. Nathan Anderson says

    Informative and well written piece. I really appreciate the historical research.

  3. Keep in mind that with the Injunction, the remainder of counties won’t be acting, WHEW! It was ugly down here in Goodhue County, and facts, as you’ve laid out above, just don’t matter to those opposing refugee resettlement. The Injunction Order and Memorandum are so well written, detailed explanation of who refugees are, how system works, and repeated consultation with local governments built into the system, and best of all, that Plaintiffs had met the standard and that E.O. 13888 would likely be found unconstitutional. Well DOH!!! Again, WHEW! I’ve posted the Order and Memorandum:

  4. C.O. Rudstrom says

    Thank you for speaking sensibly about this issue. It makes me sad when I see people in my community (former community) refuse to help people in need.

    The one thing that northern MN needs more than anything is fresh ideas and ambitious open minded people. Let’s fill all those empty schools with a fresh batch of kids. I know of a local business that has been getting foreign college students in (at a surprising expense) to work their busy summer season because they can’t find enough local teenagers to wait tables and wash dishes. Can you believe its a struggle to find people for those basic jobs?

  5. Thank you for correcting the disinformation. This is lucid piece of writing, and I agree. I attended the county board meeting in Duluth. It was standing room only crowd. Public comments extended for a couple of hours, at 5 minutes per speaker, and the majority of the speakers urged the commissioners to consent to refugee resettlement. A handful of people spoke against it, and they expressed these sentiments that you have listed. Keith Nelson made a motion to table the vote. It passed 4-3, with the commissioners from the northern St Louis County in favor of tabling and the Duluth commissioners against tabling. I urge you to write to the commissioners and share your thoughts with them. They will be voting on this matter soon.

  6. Mike Worcester says

    I was chatting about this with a friend of mine recently and we both agreed that in the minds of many (uncertain how many but still…) is that refugee = any immigrant. Which is not true. The misinformation campaign (or as I like to call it, the utter b.s. campaign) seen recently in Beltrami County prior to their vote highlighted the recurring refrain based on the religion of the newcomers. Sound familiar?

  7. Veda H Zuponcic says

    I’ve been saying this for years, and am in total agreement with you, Aaron.

  8. Ted Fiskevold says

    Well put and much needed, Aaron.

  9. Awesome commentary

  10. Jacqueline Dowell says

    Thank you for taking this issue head on, Aaron. I was horrified to see this group claims to have 1800+ members. We have had a similar group in the Grand Rapids area for the past couple years. They are anti-taxes, anti-government, anti-teachers/public education,anti-immigration,anti-climate change. Actually anti -anything that can be considered “librul”. The misinformation and hate is stomach-churning . I simply cannot grasp how the descendants of various ethnicities , especially along the Range, can be so ugly about others who are fleeing dangerous conditions in their quest for freedom, looking for safety, above all.
    And most important, what are children learning from such disturbing messages ? We must not stand on the sidelines.

  11. Joe Musich says

    Another great piece Dr Brown. You have done my Hibbing and Chisholm family predecessors well. I appreciate your stand. I never heard my father disparage anyone who came there as a refugee after WW2. That is other then using the term DP as a descriptor of the path to come to the USA. I really do not know how some of these divisive attitudes present now evolved. Tension existed in places in that time but I do not think anyone in the 1950 or 60’s would go to a meeting to be an excluder let alone allow themselves to be photographed. What we see now it something different. The know nothingism is much more energized. But nice again thanks.

  12. Becky LaPlant says

    Well said, Aaron. A piece that needed to be written and I hope is being read widely.

  13. Scott Johnson says

    I would guess the ‘educated’ Dr. Brown has never spent any time in Saint Cloud or Minneapolis. There is a huge expense to the American taxpayer for taking in a couple hundred thousand (or even just a couple thousand) people. The ‘set up’ fees and related expenses alone are estimated to be over $ 100,000 per person, per year, for the first 5-10 years. What are set up fees? Government employees, like Dr. Brown, are a good example (public educators teaching free ride students). People getting their paycheck from those of us in private industry and whose future paycheck relies upon more government (aka taxpayer – the neighbors) spending money to support his lifestyle and misinformed financial beliefs. Start with medical assistance; this is worth $ 10,000 per year, per person, that the rest of us taxpayers have to pay for ourselves by buying health insurance. Then add in free housing, education (including interpreters when they need to go to the doctor or to get more government services). Then there is crime and the cost to manage that. Ever notice which group of refugees are leading America in convictions for being ISIS terrorists? Hint, they are all living in Minnesota. Nice try Dr. Brown, but playing on people and implying ‘vast prosperity and white guilt’ is not a good enough reason.

    • Lotta shade thrown here. I’ll try to deescalate. So, I’m not a “Doctor.” I’m a community college public speaking instructor. And not to argue every point, but I help people achieve better jobs and upward mobility so that they have better lives. The college pays for itself in increased income revenue alone, never mind the abstract concept of self-improvement and “happiness.” We train the nurses, mechanics and professionals that serve our community. That has to happen. You have to know stuff to keep civilization going.

      It’s true that Stearns County is a refugee resettlement county. All of the costs you describe are just as true for a poor rural county that has no new people moving into it. Immigrants outperform native born Americans on educational and employment outcomes. Immigrants commit fewer crimes than the population at large. Temporary assistance that produces autonomous, upwardly mobile people is a winning investment. It produces tax revenue that pays for the educations and health care of our children and grandchildren, too.

  14. Jacqueline Dowell says

    Two thumbs up, Aaron !

  15. Cyndy Martin says

    Thank you. Hopefully, this post will be well-read! You put word to paper eloquently.

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