GOP candidates want to pause refugee resettlement program
ST. PAUL -- Governors generally have little say in federal policy, but Minnesota's two major Republican governor candidates want to change that when it comes to refugees.
ST. PAUL - Governors generally have little say in federal policy, but Minnesota's two major Republican governor candidates want to change that when it comes to refugees.
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson has said over the past couple of months that he would like to talk the federal government into suspending the refugee settlement program in Minnesota, at least until the state gets a handle on how much it costs taxpayers.
"We have been more generous and more welcoming ... than any other state in the country, by a lot," Johnson said, with Minnesota taking 13 percent of refugees that come into the United States, but the state only has 2 percent of the country's population.
However, the second-time governor candidate said, the state pays hundreds of millions of dollars to help settle refugees in Minnesota. No one knows just how much, he said.
Johnson said he would like to stop the program during an investigation into spending, but would consider restarting it if it could be done cost effectively.
Johnson's main GOP opponent, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, agrees.
"I have called for a pause in the state's participation in the refugee resettlement program," Pawlenty told Forum News Service.
The Minnesota legislative auditor's office earlier this year reported that it discovered "anyone seeking to estimate this fiscal impact would face significant limitations."
Most agencies providing service to Minnesotans do not ask their immigration status. That makes assessing cost impossible, the auditor's office reported.
"Most public agencies have no particular need to know the immigration status of the people they serve, and the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act limits the collection of individual data to 'that necessary for the administration and management of programs,'" Legislative Auditor James Nobles and Special Reviews Director Joel Alter wrote in a letter to legislators.
Refugees are people who because of persecution, war or violence feel they have to leave their country. They either cannot return or are afraid to return. Refugees make up a minority of all immigrants to the country.
President Donald Trump has capped the number of refugees throughout the United States at 45,000. The number has declined since 1992.
Federal officials decide where a refugee will be settled.
Minnesota received more than $7 million to resettle refugees in 2016. That year saw 3,059 refugees settle in Minnesota, the largest number (1,410) being Somalis.
While refugees pay state taxes, they also cost the state. The legislative auditor may not have been able to provide specific figures, but the report indicates refugees get aid ranging from health care to education, from help finding jobs to funds for housing. There also are costs when refugees are arrested.
"We doubt that a comprehensive, accurate picture of refugee-related fiscal impacts - both revenues and costs - could be readily assembled using existing data," the legislative auditor's report concludes.
Johnson said that if he were governor, he would find a way to determine those costs. First, however, he promises to go to Washington, D.C., to get federal officials to agree to stop the resettlement program in Minnesota; he said he does not think a governor can stop it without federal approval.
The candidate, a Detroit Lakes native, said he does not want to stop refugees because he is anti-foreigners. He said supporters of his idea have "reasonable and real concerns."
"There are some wonderful success stories ... but lately the program just in not working for Minnesota," he said.
The pro-refugee group Main Street Minnesota disagrees.
"Immigrants and refugees are entrepreneurs, employees who help grow our businesses and our customers," the group tweeted. "We believe everyone brings something to the table. We're stronger when we learn from one another."
Besides, the group said, "it's the Minnesota way" to accept immigrants and refugees.
That is the position of Erin Murphy, a St. Paul lawmaker and Democratic-endorsed governor candidate.
"This is divisive, hateful rhetoric being used as a cynical campaign tactic," Murphy said. "Jeff Johnson and Tim Pawlenty are tripping over each other to see who can do more to divide us, turn us against our neighbors and demonize families from around the world who are fleeing violence, terror and famine in much the same way as many of our Hmong and Somali neighbors were."
Campaigns of the other two major Democratic candidates, Tim Walz and Lori Swanson, did not respond to a request for a comment on the refugee issue.