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After judge blocks Trump executive order, Minnesota counties postpone refugee votes

Before the injunction, Trump’s order required counties to consent before refugees could be resettled in them.

People protesting last October against the Trump administration cuts to the refugee resettlement program in front of the U.S. Capitol Building.
People protesting last October against the Trump administration cuts to the refugee resettlement program in front of the U.S. Capitol Building.
REUTERS/Leah Millis

Beltrami County commissioners made news this month, voting to bar refugees from resettling in the county when they first arrive in the U.S.

The northern Minnesota county is among the at least 25 counties that have voted on the issue, the result of an executive order by President Donald Trump that sought to give local governments more say in whether or not to welcome refugees. Beltrami was the only county to vote no.

For many Minnesota counties, the decision is more of a symbolic exercise than one likely to have effects: only about half of Minnesota’s 87 counties have resettled any refugees in the last decade. Besides, refugees can move freely once they can arrive in the U.S.

All those votes may have been for nothing after all. On Jan. 15, a federal judge placed an injunction on the executive order, halting its implementation and leaving the future of county control over refugee resettlement uncertain.

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Resettlement rules

In the United States, refugees are resettled through coordination between the U.S. Department of State and nine resettlement nonprofits that operate through local affiliates to help newcomers settle in (an explanation of the process can be found here).

The executive order, issued in September, would give states and counties an unprecedented role in that process by requiring resettlement agencies to get state and county permission in order to place refugees.

The order was scheduled to take effect June 1, but many counties sought to make decisions before Jan. 21 in order to give resettlement agencies the green light before their deadline to apply for federal funding. Under the executive order, counties are required to opt in to allow refugee resettlement, so not voting would be effectively the same as voting “no.” (MinnPost is aware of one county, Morrison, that has decided not to vote.)

On Jan. 15, a federal judge in Maryland placed a preliminary injunction on the executive order, barring it from taking effect for the time being. U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte argued the order violated statute, judicial precedent and practice. The Trump Administration released a statement disagreeing with the judge’s decision. It called Messitte’s court “another lawless district court” asserting its preferred immigration policy. It’s not yet clear whether the administration will appeal.

Postponing votes

For now, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program will operate as it did prior to the executive order, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. The injunction will remain in place until there’s a final legal decision on the fate of the executive order. If the administration appeals and is unsuccessful, the status quo will continue and the Department of State will continue to coordinate with nonprofits to resettle refugees. If the administration appeals and wins, the executive order will go into effect and counties will have to give their permission.

In light of the injunction, many Minnesota counties that had planned to discuss or vote on the refugee resettlement question have decided to postpone their votes, and in some cases, discussions.

Stearns County, which has resettled the second largest number of refugees per capita in the last decade, had discussed the executive order on Jan. 7, tabling their vote until later.

Because of the injunction, that vote won’t happen. Instead, “it’s on the consent agenda just to postpone indefinitely. Our board won’t be taking any action on it,” said county administrator Michael Williams. Since a refugee resettlement agency that had requested permission from the county to resettle refugees withdrew its request after the injunction, there’s no longer a reason to vote.

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“I don’t know that it’s a written policy, but we don’t do resolutions, or things that aren’t directly related to our programs or our budgets or our business,” Williams said.

In Martin County, in south-central Minnesota, the county attorney’s office advised commissioners not to take a vote on refugee resettlement scheduled for Tuesday in light of the injunction.

Benton County, in Central Minnesota, had planned to discuss refugee resettlement Tuesday, but the board removed the item from the agenda following the injunction.

“I guess if the issue comes back, we’ll address it,” Montgomery Headley, the county administrator, told MinnPost.

Ken Fritz, the administrator of southeastern Minnesota’s Winona County, said the county will wait for the results of the injunction to make any decision.

He said it would use county time and resources to have a public hearing “when the question might be moot depending on what happens with the injunction.”

East central Minnesota’s Pine County discussed refugee resettlement Tuesday, but took no action and has not scheduled further discussion, according to county administrator David Minke.

In a heated county commissioner meeting Tuesday, Koochiching County residents discussed resettlement but took no action, the International Falls Journal reported.

A vote scheduled for Tuesday in Douglas County (county seat: Alexandria) was removed from the agenda after the injunction, said Heather Schlangen, county coordinator. Lyon County (Marshall) will hold a community meeting next Tuesday to discuss resettlement but will not vote on the issue until the injunction is resolved, per county administrator Loren Stromberg.