DULUTH -- In a surprising turn Tuesday, the St. Louis County Board voted to table a vote on giving consent for refugee resettlement at its meeting in Duluth. The decision delays the county's response to an executive order issued by President Donald Trump in September that requires states and counties to consent or opt out of resettlement consideration.

As of June 1, refugees will not be placed in states and counties that do not provide written consent.

The vote was split among rural and Duluth commissioners, with Keith Nelson, Keith Musolf, Paul McDonald and Mike Jugovich approving the delay, while Beth Olson, Frank Jewell and Patrick Boyle opposed.

McDonald said the decision was on "the fast track," and wanted it to slow down.

"It's my duty to make sure all constituents know the facts," McDonald, Fourth District commissioner representing Ely, said.

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McDonald added that the board would likely hold town halls and other forms of outreach to help residents understand the nuances of refugee resettlement. Early in the meeting, a packed County Board room was given a detailed lesson on immigration and refugees by a state Department of Human Services resettlement expert. McDonald said that information was something all interested parties throughout the county would want to know.

McDonald heard pleas from audience members afterward to "do the right thing."

"I will," he told them.

The vote to delay immediately elicited a confrontation between Nelson and both Olson and Jewell after the board adjourned for lunch. The interaction ended with Nelson walking away holding up his hand between he and the two Duluth commissioners.

"I'm furious; I'm absolutely furious," Olson, Third District commissioner representing West Duluth, said. "I am emboldened and impassioned to fight like hell."

Jewell identified Nelson as orchestrating the delay.

"We're going to go up to Buhl, so that Keith can gather a whole bunch of people from Buhl," Jewell said. "I'm frustrated. We should have never delayed after making people wait for (so long)."

The vote followed almost three hours of public testimony, much of it in support of consent. Opposition to consent, about a third of the speakers, was mostly concerned about the cost to taxpayers.

Patricia Fenrick with the State of Minnesota Department of Human Services resettlement program office gives a presentation to county commissioners prior to a public hearing for the issue of refugee resettlement consent Tuesday at the St. Louis County board chambers in Duluth. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)
Patricia Fenrick with the State of Minnesota Department of Human Services resettlement program office gives a presentation to county commissioners prior to a public hearing for the issue of refugee resettlement consent Tuesday at the St. Louis County board chambers in Duluth. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)

Refugees are an international designation of immigrants who are displaced by persecution, and events such as war, violence, famine or catastrophe. St. Louis County is a low-priority county for refugee replacement. Only refugees with family in the county are allowed to be placed. Most of the state's refugees are concentrated in the Twin Cities, where there are specific, mostly religious-based, resettlement agencies.

The county had no resettled refugees among the 818 people placed statewide in 2018, only one in more than a half-dozen years, and none in the past five years.

Gov. Tim Walz notably issued state consent in December by saying, in part: “The inn is not full in Minnesota."

Several counties in Minnesota already have tackled the issue, as well. Kandiyohi, Blue Earth and Nicollet counties all have voted in recent weeks in favor of continuing to accept refugees. Beltrami County was scheduled to take up the issue, Tuesday, Jan. 7.