This past Tuesday, St. Cloud City Councilman Jeff Johnson participated in a high-profile discussion of the Refugee Resettlement Act of 1980. Saying that it was a fascinating discussion is understatement. Each panelist made an opening presentation, which was followed by a Q & A period. These presentations were made by Don Barnett, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, Richard Thompson, the president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, and Councilman Johnson.
During his presentation, Don Barnett quoted Ted Kennedy, the chief author of the bill, as saying “because the admission of refugees is a federal decision and lies outside of normal immigration procedures, the federal government has a clear responsibility to assist communities in resettling refugees and helping them to become self-supporting. The basic issues here were the length of time of federal responsibility and the method of its administration. State and local agencies were insistent that federal assistance must continue long enough to assure that local citizens will not be taxed for programs they did not initiate and for which they were not responsible. The program must assure full and adequate federal support for refugee resettlement programs by authorizing permanent funding for state, local, and volunteer projects.”
That might be one of the most sensible things Sen. Kennedy ever said. Here’s the video of Barnett’s presentation:
Based on what the bill’s chief author said, the federal government isn’t living up to its responsibilities. Certainly, there’s no denying the fact that the bill’s chief author knows what the legislative intent is. During his presentation, Councilman Johnson focused on the bill from the “perspective from the local city level.” Councilman Johnson said “And I want to say on my watch this really started brewing in St. Cloud approximately three years ago, where my constituents – I represent Ward 4 – started asking questions about the Refugee Resettlement Program, about why am I spending money in a program that I have no representation. This is a classic case of taxation without representation. So this started to boil over time.”
To summarize that meeting, what I saw, four things were occurring. One, we have a nonprofit religious organization, OK, taking federal dollars, and they were pocketing approximately $1,000 per refugee. The allocation’s about 3,300 (dollars), but they got to keep about $1,000 per refugee, OK? They were not being transparent with the public, and it got to the point where they actually had a deputy at the door monitoring who was coming into the meetings. And I said you need to open up these meetings because you’re using federal dollars, you’re a nonprofit organization, and to me it was becoming apparent that they were acting like a for-profit corporation.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s more of that ‘iceberg’:
So finally, what led up to kind of a culminating event in St. Cloud was a resolution that I had introduced into the City Council in November. And it’s a simple one-page resolution. I call it legalized plagiarism: All I did is about two-thirds of this resolution was quoted right from the Refugee Act of 1980. And I’d like to read a couple parts. Mark mentioned it early on in the presentation; it’s so important I want to mention it again just briefly. And this is the actual language in the resolution. It says “Whereas the Refugee Act of 1980 states that 8 U.S. Code 1522(b),” quote, “‘The director'” – I’m talking about the Minnesota Office of Refugee Resettlement director – “‘shall develop and implement in consultation with representatives of voluntary agencies and state and local governments'” – that’s me, OK? – “‘policies and strategies for the placement and resettlement of refugees within the United States.’” The next paragraph has even more teeth from the U.S. Code: “Whereas the Refugee Act of 1980 states in 8 U.S. Code 1522(c)(2) The director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement will” – “will” is a pretty strong word – quote, “‘provide for a mechanism whereby representatives of local affiliates of voluntary agencies regularly, not less than quarterly, meet with representatives of state and local governments to plan and coordinate in advance of their arrival the appropriate placement of refugees amongst various states and localities.'”
LSS was doing its utmost to hide their actions:
What was going on here in St. Cloud is Lutheran Social Services – and after kind of pulling some teeth I finally got their abstract to kind of find out what was going on – is they were going ahead with this process. And then, because I was so persistent, it was like show and tell. I’d show up at the quarterly meetings and they’d tell me what they did. My argument is that is a violation of federal law. That is not in advance planning, all right? This is show and tell. I’m finding out after the fact. So what was going on, this was feeding into the frustration, again, to the taxpayers, the people of Ward 4 in St. Cloud that I represent.
This is how refugee resettlement rose to become the potent political issue it’s become.
The first truth about the Refugee Resettlement Program is that the federal government isn’t living up to its obligation. The next truth about the Refugee Resettlement Program is that it’s become more like an unfunded mandate with time. The third truth about the Refugee Resettlement Program is that the federal government is hostile to counties and municipalities. They don’t care whether their program drives up local taxes. The federal government’s attitude seems to be that ‘that’s their problem.’
The other thing that’s important in all of this is that the City Council, the people on the front lines on this, are supposed to protect their citizens’ interests. They aren’t there to protect the state’s interests. That’s what we have legislators for. They aren’t there to protect the federal government’s interests. That’s why we have congressmen and senators. If the city council won’t push back against the federal government, then they’re worthless. They should be replaced by people who insist on accountability and transparency.
The finger-pointing must stop immediately. While the program is administered by the federal government, it’s indisputable that municipalities and counties have shouldered an increasing percentage of the burden for this program.
It isn’t that St. Cloud is hostile to refugees. It’s that we’re upset with the federal government and with Lutheran Social Services.