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Support for refugees: In Lyon County, Trump’s divisive plan backfired

President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Erin Scott
President Donald Trump

Jeff Kolnick
Jeff Kolnick
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.

Saara Myrene Raappana
Saara Myrene Raappana
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.

Eric Doise
Eric Doise

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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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 02/12/2020 - 09:55 am.

    Of course local residents and tax payers should have a say as to whether or not they want the Federal Government, through for profit groups, to bring in hundreds of refugees into their community. They live and pay taxes there, why shouldn’t they have a say? Why would you want a person or group, that does not live in the community, making decisions for you? If the community votes yes, fantastic, bring the refugees in. If they vote no, why would refugees want to move where they are not welcomed?
    It seems to me to be another overreaction to a common sense approach to local citizens having a say in their community.

    • Submitted by Patrick Tice on 02/12/2020 - 12:28 pm.

      And yet somehow we have managed to grow our country without the extra stumbling block of Trump Party red tape. Like other policies crafted by the party, this one is designed to keep out minorities and ultimately to preserve the only thing Trumpers really love about minorities: Christian white minority rule.

    • Submitted by Paul Yochim on 02/12/2020 - 01:04 pm.

      Joe, I couldn’t agree more.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 02/12/2020 - 01:20 pm.

      “why would refugees want to move where they are not welcomed?”

      I know a guy who’s a refugee. And, belive it or not, moving to small town Minnesota that wouldn’t want him would still be far preferrable to living off of dead bodies where he was a refugee. Can you imagine picking your way through a minefield to scavenge off someone who didn’t make it across so you can barter for your next meal? Compared to that, dealing with an ornery minnesotan who doesn’t like non-scandihoovians probably sounds idyllic.

    • Submitted by Jeffrey Kolnick on 02/12/2020 - 01:41 pm.

      Thanks for the comment Joe. The trouble is, that no one can stop refugees from resettling in their communities, wanted or unwanted. Once a refugee is in the US, they can move wherever they want, just like anyone else. Common sense has nothing to do with this.

    • Submitted by Gary Fifield on 02/12/2020 - 03:08 pm.

      Of course what you say makes sense. If this was being done in the context of a national policy of expanding immigration and refugee resettlement one could applaud it as a thoughtful approach. However, in the context of the Administration’s policy of demonizing immigrants and refugees and shutting down access the intent is pretty clear. Just as the authors state, this was intended to inflame passions and divide communities and rev-up supporters of the Administration policy. A policy of discrimination and exclusion.

  2. Submitted by Ole Johnson on 02/12/2020 - 01:08 pm.

    Not sure exactly what is wrong with Trump asking local communities to discuss whether they want to accept refugees.

    Sounds like the new policy lets people decide on their own whether or not they would like to accept refugees. No one is being forced to do anything by the Feds.

    Seems to me that this is good for the refugees as well. Aren’t they going to be happier being relocated somewhere where the local community has positively welcomed them? Instead of being dropped into a community that doesn’t want them?

  3. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/12/2020 - 07:10 pm.

    The local people had their say, just as the President requested (even though a court overruled him) which is “backfiring” how?

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