BISMARCK, N.D. — A legislative panel began studying the impact Wednesday of refugee resettlement in North Dakota, a process its chairwoman said is widely misunderstood by many legislators.
Democratic Rep. Kathy Hogan, a retired social services director in Fargo who worked with refugees for years, leads the 17-member committee that is tasked with the study mandated by the Legislature. The panel is to examine the impact of refugees on such things as the workforce, government services, law enforcement, schools and health care.
“I think we will come away with a significant understanding about what refugee resettlement is about,” Hogan told The Associated Press.
The committee is slated to meet at least five times and present recommendations to the Legislature on how to improve or modify the resettlement process.
The study comes after some Republican lawmakers unsuccessfully pushed a measure earlier this year that would let communities and the governor temporarily ban refugee resettlement while data is being collected.
Critics believed the proposal was discriminatory and unconstitutional and did not take into account the economic contributions made by refugees, or their role in diversifying the mostly white and deeply conservative state. Backers of the measure said some social service programs and schools are being financially stressed due to lack of federal funding and local and state governments should be allowed input in the refugee resettlement process.
After a debate and often emotional testimony from refugees themselves, lawmakers voted to study the issue.
North Dakota’s resettlement program began in 1946, when the Lutheran Welfare Society — which became Lutheran Social Services — began accepting mostly Protestants fleeing Nazi Germany. The group has resettled an average of 450 refugees a year in the past decade, about 70 percent of whom are in the Fargo area.
Most of the refugees who left their countries to escape persecution in recent years have come from Bhutan, Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq and Sudan, LSS said.
North Dakota’s economy — led by the oil patch in the western part of the state — has resulted in thousands more jobs than takers in the past decade and has attracted people from across the globe.
The U.S. Census Bureau said Tuesday that whites make up 85 percent of the state’s population, compared to 92 percent in 2000.
The jump may not seem big, but in a state with about 758,000 residents — the overwhelming majority white — minorities are noticed, and many of them are mistaken for refugees, Hogan said.
“Overall immigration has increased so much and it has created a perception that all of them are refugees,” said Hogan. “We have to be very careful not to judge people by the color of their skin or their language.”
Shirley Dykshoorn, a vice president for Lutheran Social Services, said North Dakota employers often call her agency wanting to recruit refugees for work.
“Not only for entry level, but for lots of jobs in the community,” she said. “I feel like that’s letting us know there is a need.”