North Dakota county may put refugee resettlement on ballot

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In this Dec. 9, 2019 file photo, residents in support of continued refugee resettlement hold signs at a meeting in Bismarck, N.D. Hundreds of people crowded into a Bismarck middle school in December to make their feelings known on whether or not Burleigh County should continue accepting refugees. The county was on the verge of being the first in the nation to reject any additional refugees in the wake of an executive order by President Donald Trump, before voting instead to cap the number. (AP Photo/James MacPherson, File)

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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A North Dakota county commission that recently voted to limit the number of refugees it will accept may let voters decide the issue in the future.

Burleigh County Commission Chairman Brian Bitner said the five-member panel will discuss a potential ballot question Monday night “relating to the future resettlement of refugees.”

The commission last month voted to accept no more than 25 refugees in 2020. The 3-2 vote came after a four-hour meeting where several refugees, in often emotional testimony, urged the commission to continue accepting new arrivals. If commissioners had voted no, refugee resettlement groups say they believe Burleigh, which is home to about 95,000 people and the capital city of Bismarck, would have been be the first local government to do so since President Donald Trump gave states and counties the power to do so.

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Officials at Lutheran Social Services, which handles North Dakota’s refugee resettlement cases, did not immediately respond to phone messages left Friday.

Burleigh County Attorney Julie Lawyer said she’s been researching the commission’s ability to get a non-binding measure on the ballot and isn’t sure it’s possible.

“If it’s set in stone, they don’t want it on the ballot,” Lawyer said.

Burleigh County doesn’t receive many refugees — just 24 in fiscal 2019, after 22 the year before — but interest in the vote was intense. A standing-room-only crowd of more than 450 people showed up to testify for and against refugee resettlement.

Bitner and others, including Republican state Rep. Rick Becker and Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken, cited a lack of control and the potential new costs of supporting refugees, though the county does not track such costs. And opponents have not provided evidence refugees are a drain on the county’s finances.

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Bitner voted against accepting new refugees. He said several people have since requested that the issue be put voters.

“I think it’s a fair thing to allow citizens to vote on this,” he said. “A citizens vote on the issue would tell me something.”

Bitner said he did not know if the commission would decide Monday whether to put the issue on the ballot.

If the commission decides to put the issue on the ballot, either in June or November, it would not affect the 2020 cap voted on last month, Bitner said.

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