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Grand Forks leaders weigh New American info sessions

Leaders with Grand Forks' Immigrant Integration Initiative are in the midst of planning a series of local meetings set to bring local residents and New Americans together, with an eye to start bridging the gap between both groups as soon as early...

Leaders with Grand Forks' Immigrant Integration Initiative are in the midst of planning a series of local meetings set to bring local residents and New Americans together, with an eye to start bridging the gap between both groups as soon as early next year.

While it's not clear exactly what those meetings will look like - maybe a presentation, maybe a Q&A - City Council and Initiative member Bret Weber said it's been long enough since the last, similar set of meetings, so it's a good time to jump in again.

"We'll never suddenly solve all of this. It's ongoing work," Weber said. "We have new rumors that emerge, new New Americans coming all the time - 106 this past year. Not overwhelming, but suddenly Grand Forks had 106 new people come live here. We should be doing everything we can, because we're a welcoming community, to make sure that they're welcome, and to make them productive members of our community."

The meetings come in the midst of a complex mix of conversations on immigration and refugees, both at the local and national level. Robin David, a fellow member of the Initiative, pointed out the arson of the Somali-owned Juba Cafe still is in recent memory, an incident in which Matthew Gust, 26, pleaded guilty to a hate crime charge and is serving a 15-year prison term.

And though Weber has said the meetings have been on the committee's agenda for weeks, David also pointed out recent reports that the state of North Dakota had the second-highest per-capita rate of hate crimes in 2015.

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"We very much realize that we have work to do as a community," David said. "We have a role to play, and that's to help make this a place where everybody can feel safe."

Nationally, a discussion about president-elect Donald Trump's immigration rhetoric has continued to ring throughout the past year and a half. Grand Forks immigrants have voiced both confidence and fear at Trump's presidential victory, alternately dismissing concerns that he could be a danger and fretting at how his words could embolden racists.

David also is president of the Board of Directors for Global Friends Coalition, a group that helps refugees settle in the Grand Forks area. She said she can't say Trump's campaign caused it, but she said her organization has seen an uptick in questions from the public about New Americans that correspond with Trump's own concerns.

Weber stressed the meetings aren't a response to Trump's election. However, David did point out that she finds the development concerning.

"I don't know what policy is going to bring in these next years, but what I would hope to see is an appreciation of the value that all people bring to this country, including our immigrants, including our refugees, who have so much to offer our community and who have been through so much and now are here to contribute," David said. "I want to hear strong leadership at the top that values those contributions."

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