More than 200 people packed the basement of the Lyon County Law Enforcement Center in Marshall on Jan. 28. They were there for a hearing on the refugee resettlement program. Even though the special meeting of the Lyon County Commission had been moved to the basement in anticipation of a larger-than-usual crowd, it was still standing room only.
The meeting followed one where the issue was first discussed earlier in the month. That initial hearing featured comments from about 20 people, most of whom were in opposition and claimed that refugees were a burden on the area schools, were not assimilating, and contributed to what the commenters felt were high taxes.
The second hearing was a stark contrast to the first. Roughly 40 residents spoke. All but three — at least one of whom said she did not live in the county — supported refugee resettlement. Supporters of the program came from a wide spectrum of the city: representatives of the Southwest Minnesota State University faculty union, the teachers union, the town’s Hy-Vee, and clergy people of several denominations, as well as an area farmer, a Swedish immigrant, and refugees themselves. Some were retirees, some middle-aged, and some students. This from a county that Donald Trump won in 2016 with about 60% of the votes.
Why the discussion?
Why were we discussing refugee resettlement in Lyon County? Had there been a groundswell of interest in it? Were our county commissioners bombarded with letters, emails, phone calls, and visits on refugee resettlement in Lyon County? Of course not. We were discussing this topic because President Donald Trump made us do so with a preposterous and divisive executive order requiring that both states and localities consent to have their locations as sites for refugee resettlement. This order, issued in September of 2019, was made irrelevant with a temporary injunction in January that ruled that the executive order “does not appear to serve the overall public interest.”
Almost certainly the president’s goal was to make communities discuss this issue. His hope, we feel certain, was to gin up his base on the issue of immigration. To send a signal to every community in the United States that his presidency is hostile to refugees, and by implication, immigrants. Indeed, one of the final speakers on Jan. 28 expressed this hostility when she asked out loud, “Why are we talking about refugees? I thought we were going to talk about ‘the illegals’ and other immigrants.” This confusion was, of course, the goal of the president’s executive order.
A welcoming space for years
But in Lyon County the president’s plan backfired. Lyon County has been a welcoming space for refugee resettlement for years, and we suspect our county will remain one should the president’s executive order be resuscitated. Instead of mobilizing an immigrant-wary and refugee-fearing base, he ignited a fire under those of us who value immigrants, refugees, and even “the illegals.”
In November we will face a stark choice between a party that is committed to deepening the divisions in our community and a party committed to finding room at the table for everyone. Who are we as a nation? We hope the president will be surprised when we answer in November.
Saara Myrene Raappana is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Marshall. Eric Doise teaches English at Southwest Minnesota State University. Jeff Kolnick teaches history at SMSU. The views expressed in this commentary are solely their own.
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