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A complicated issue

Identifying angst about refugee resettlement

Walking into LSS these days isn’t as simple as stepping into the lobby, strolling down the hall and knocking on doors. Resembling the visitation process of public schools, walk­ins must check into the front desk, stating their business or appointment. For the remainder of their time there, they must also don a rather large “Visitor” sign around their necks.

It hasn’t always been like this.

Jessica Thomasson, CEO of North Dakota’s Lutheran Social Services, oversees the bulk of refugee resettlement in both Fargo and Moorhead. The Forum, which named her Forum’s 2015 Area Person of the Year, labeled her as “a lightning rod for refugee criticism.” After just over a year on the job, she doesn’t disagree. The Forum asked Thomasson if threats have been made to her or her organization, and after a sober pause, she simply replied, “it’s nothing that’s actionable.”

She expects criticism. But for all the psychology and sociology books she has read, she still struggles to nail down where the criticism spouts from, and why the issue has become so raw. Over the years, several different implications have meshed to create a tangled issue.

“What exactly is the angst?” Thomasson rhetorically asked the room of students. “It’s a difficult conversation to be had. People don’t have a frame of reference.”


Thomasson may be new to her position, but LSS has handled refugee resettlement since the end of World War II, working cases for thousands of refugees from dozens of countries. Overseeing the education, employment and housing of these refugees only makes up a fraction of Thomasson’s responsibilities, but performing such tasks attracts a certain amount of resistance from the surrounding Fargo­

Moorhead community. Her biggest challenge is addressing the fears and concerns of her community, and understanding where they source from.

“It’s not just the ‘crazies,’” Thomasson said, who speaks in churches and forums on behalf of LSS. “It’s easy to dismiss an anti­immigrant belief as a fringe belief ­­ it is not. I hear the same arguments brought up in city hall and in the congregation. They all have similar questions, but different tones.”

The questions she mentions are nothing new – in all of LSS’s years managing casework for refugees, certain amounts of critical debate have stirred. But Thomasson said she believes some things have changed in recent years; attitudes have also shifted.

She said in past decades, refugees fled from commonly known war fronts of U.S. involvement. According to LSS records, the earliest refugees that came to North Dakota hailed from Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, fleeing Nazi influence in Europe. Since then, LSS has taken in refugees from Central America in the 50s and 60s and Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Likewise, in the most tense moments of the Cold War, LSS has harbored refugees from Eastern Europe and Russia.

But a current map highlighting refugee home countries shows a less obvious correlation – people come from countries with little U.S. involvement, many of which rarely show up in common media. Refugees leave countries such as Bhutan, Burundi, Liberia and Ethiopia for a variety of reasons that don’t relate to US involvement.

“There is no common enemy anymore. No communism, no fascism,” Thomasson said. “We don’t know who to be afraid of, so we’re afraid of everyone. And everyone is different from us.”

Thomasson isn’t the only person who’s noticed a shift in general opinion.


“People are coming from parts of the world that we haven’t much attention to,” said Barry Nelson, who was responsible for LSS’s New American Services for just over twenty years. “People don’t understand the dynamics or why the people were leaving there.”

He said without political context, most misunderstandings occur over religious issues.

“Now it’s a ‘religious war,’” Nelson said. “Islam is the assumed enemy.”

Nelson describes recent push­back as a perfect storm, one comprised of many social and political factors. Moreover, when certain information is mishandled, concerns manifest further.

He recalled recent newscasts by KVLY, specifically the program “Point of View,” which reported on LSS’s 2016 expectations. The video features footage of an LSS quarterly meeting and produces information about LSS’s estimated 458 new arrivals from several countries. But Nelson said the broadcast – though opinion­ based – showed brief footage of undocumented Syrian refugees flowing across borders, something he says is completely unrelated. Later, the broadcast makes mention of Somalian ISIS recruitments in Minnesota, as well as the 2015 San Bernadino shootings.

“It’s lumping everyone together,” Nelson said. “It assumes we don’t have screening system for bringing these people over, and that’s baseless.”

With Syrian refugees in the news on an almost daily basis in 2015, a spotlight was shed on the fact that North Dakota takes in more refugees per capita than any other state, according to the US Office of Refugee Resettlement. Nelson said this, in tandem with a highly publicized election season, brings unwarranted attention to LSS.

“Some highly visible leaders have taken advantage of [refugee fears],” Nelson said. “It’s used as a political agenda.”

As Cass County Commissioner, Chad Peterson has been at the center of these political conversations for over four years.

“Put on your foil hat for this,” he said, recalling some of the more radical opinions regarding resettlement, “some people think the government’s throwing refugees into the red states to turn the red states blue.”

Peterson said this definitely isn’t the case – refugees are placed in locations that have the most job demand. The Bakken region’s latest oil boom made North Dakota one of the fastest growing states in the US; workers moved to the western portions of the state, leaving Fargo with a vacuum in the workforce.

“The business community loves refugees,” Peterson said. “They need bodies.”

Peterson said he and the commissioner’s office act as the “manpower” that enforces the immigration policies laid down by the federal government. He works closely with LSS to ensure the responsible engagement of refugees in Cass county.

He said LSS’s position as the sole manager of refugee resettlement was cemented by the Wilson/Fish Amendment, which amended Immigration and Nationality Act in 1984 and allows state governments to contract an alternative, non­profit agency to organize refugee resettlement through federal grants. North Dakota is one of these states, and Peterson said he’s convinced this may be one of the most misunderstood aspects of the issue.

“People throw daggers at LSS,” Peterson said. “But if it wasn’t them, it would be someone else.”


But some members of the community, like Forum columnist Rob Port, think the “someone else” shouldn’t be a third party, it should be the members of the community in which strangers will be placed.

“There should be more government involvement on this issue, and I say that as someone who’s in favor of minimal government,” Port said, who also runs, a major blogging site focused on North Dakota. “Are we

doing a good enough job adding them to our community if they’re (receiving federal money)?”

Port has used his platforms on both the Forum and his blog to question LSS, claiming that immigration policy should be decided by legislature, and, naturally, the majority vote of the state.

“I’m not against refugee resettlement,” Port said. “If we can help people by bringing them into the community, I think that’s good.”

But while Port said he believes blatant racists are present and vocal in the community, refugee opposition is often misunderstood.

“It’s immediately assumed that if you’re calling these things out, you’re a racist,” Port said. “I think that’s hugely inappropriate.”

Peterson said he understands this argument, and often hears concerns about the extra burden resettlement has on local taxpayers.

“We have a lot of people locally who need our help, too,” Peterson said. “There’s no crazy about that at all.”

With all the money, time and energy spent relocating hundreds of people into ND, Peterson said he also wonders if resources are being allocated in the best way.

“Are we doing the best job we can to take care of these people?” Peterson said.

But for every honest argument, Peterson said a few “foil hat” arguments sneak into the fray, arguments that suggest refugees have terroristic intentions, even though the immigration process is far stricter than basic international travel security.

“If you’re logic is ‘(terrorists) are going to come kill me,’ they’re just going to do it,” Peterson said, who claimed that these immigrants cause very little domestic trouble. Conversely, it’s usually Americans that are responsible for crime in the F­ M area. “The ‘immigrants’ we’re having problems with are from Chicago and Detroit.”

Peterson said the community also incorrectly speculates about the amount of money accrued by LSS.

“People think LSS is in this to make millions of dollars,” Peterson said. “They make maybe $9,000 per refugee.”

According to tax forms, LSS declared $40 million in revenue in 2013, but as a nonprofit organization, it puts most of that money back into programming.


Shirley Dykshoorn, Vice President for Senior and Humanitarian Services at LSS, said she thinks most resistance to LSS is intended to defend the rights of community families, but likely stems from a basic misunderstanding of refugees and the war­torn countries they seek refuge from.

“People don’t have an understanding of what’s going on in all these countries,” said Dykshoorn, who mentioned that only some of the people immigrating originate from places of US political concern. “You have to go way back to an understanding.”

In agreement with Thomasson and Nelson, Dykshoorn said the issue hasn’t always been so tense, and the tension has little to do with LSS, but rather the social circumstances surrounding much older fears – fears of different people, cultures, and religions.

“It’s cyclical. We’ve had resistance through the years,” Dykshoorn said. “But in the last six months, it’s been worse.”

Dykshoorn attributed this to recent political election hype in tandem with the fear felt in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in major civilian cities like Paris and Brussels. In the midst of this, local media has misconstrued facts or sensationalized coverage.

“There have been so many more instances of the media fueling the fire instead of understanding the story,” she said.

She said these misinterpreted facts and biased points of view not only generate fear, but they also make fears seem viable and reasonable. And while many of the communities concerns are understandable, she said she believes those concerns may be rooted in fears of change and difference.

She pointed to a black­and­white photo of a small, German refugee child getting off a plane at the Fargo airport in the late 1940s and said she wondered if there would be so much resistance if every refugee looked the same as the light­skinned boy at the tip of her finger.

“Only because he didn’t look so different, there was less hubbub,” she said.

Concordia College psychology professor Mark Covey specializes in the study and explanation of the fear of “other,” or those different from societal norms. He remembers buttons that people used to wear in Fargo reading: “­40 degrees keeps the riffraff out.” And though the buttons have left their lapels, fears of “other” remain pinned to the minds of the F­M community.

“It’s not new, but it’s amplified,” Covey said. “Why do we perceive people as different or potentially threatening?”

He said the perhaps subliminal fear of “others” comes from the feeling of competing for resources. The idea that “my group” differs from “their group” based on factors like culture and religion. This isn’t because people are blatantly racist or xenophobic, but because their brain naturally categorizes people and feels comfortable among groups with similar values and practices.

“Categorizing is how we can manage a pretty complicated world,” he said. “Interacting with different people is uncomfortable, but the more we learn about people, the less stereotyping we do.”

Covey explained how the so­called “struggle” for resources still holds true to modern Western civilization. This so­called “misperception of privilege” causes existing, cemented groups to believe they are being denied services that are offered to groups from “other” groups. In the early immigration days of the US, groups

from different European backgrounds collided, but over time, little tension exists between American caucasians.

“Having a common enemy gives older refugees a different definition,” Covey said. “We gain an identity by playing up our group, especially if we’re the majority.”

He said that long­established human psychological habits, when combined with inflammatory media coverage, political stress and complicated histories, makes for heated debates in communities like the F­M area.

“We’re afraid of these people (others),” Covey said, “but they could become our allies.”


This piece was completed for the Investigating and Narrating the News course where all students reported  on refugee issues and stories in Fargo-Moorhead.

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