BISMARCK — The head of North Dakota’s largest state agency has been fielding multiple calls from residents with a similar theme about the U.S. southern border.
Chris Jones, executive director of the state Department of Human Services, said the most recent call accused the state of “hiding 100 children” who’d recently arrived by plane and “they all were sick.”
The misinformation, apparently a result of speculation, he said, prompted his agency to speak out on Tuesday, March 30.
Jones said while the state does work to support resettlement of refugees and others legally authorized to enter the country, it is not taking in unaccompanied, undocumented children.
“This is very different from that,” he said, referring to confusion over distinctions between refugees, who are fleeing war or persecution in their countries, and legal and illegal immigrants.
Jones said the state also does not have the facilities to house children from the southern border.
As part of the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, North Dakota has been shifting away from institutional care toward community-based treatment and support for children and youth.
In eight years, the state has reduced by more than 200 the number of such licensed beds, he said.
While the state is not taking in kids from the border, Jones said it is reconfiguring its refugee resettlement response following the abrupt closure earlier this year of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.
Part of the reconfiguration includes hiring a State Refugee Resettlement Coordinator — a job posted just this week.
The position, for which the state is “urgently hiring,” requires a bachelor’s degree and eight years of experience in human services leadership.
The person hired will oversee a total team of 21 people and a $6.1M budget for the biennium, the job post said.
The position is full-time but temporary, as the state aims to return to a point in the future where another nonprofit will operate the refugee resettlement program.
Even so, North Dakota will maintain a hand in the program because without it, the federal government can resettle refugees here without any say from the state, he said.
The unexpected shutdown of LSS, of which the state received only 24 hours notice, was an unusual occurrence.
Jones said it’s believed to be the first closure of its kind in the approximately one dozen states that have that kind of refugee resettlement partnership.
“Obviously, we don't want to be in a position like we were this time (with LSS),” Jones said. “How do we have a better line of sight on what's going on? So I can see us maintaining a small role,” he said.
In 2019, a total of 124 refugees were resettled in North Dakota; in 2020, the number was 44, according to the governor’s office.
For now, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a nonprofit organization that recently set up an office in Fargo, has taken over some of the resettlement program work.
Few resettlements are happening currently, Jones said.
“We're being as slow and transparent as we possibly can while still making sure that refugees who are resettled to North Dakota can be successful,” he said.