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Minnesota County Votes Yes To More Refugees

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Many towns and counties across the country face an unusual Christmas deadline. They need to decide by December 25 if they're willing to welcome more refugees. In Minnesota, one county that's been divided over immigration policies has nevertheless said yes.

Minnesota Public Radio's Riham Feshir reports.

RIHAM FESHIR, BYLINE: The city of Willmar has a population of about 20,000 and is Kandiyohi County’s largest city. Unlike many of its neighbors, this small town in west central Minnesota is growing, with a third of its population made up of people of color. That's largely because Somali immigrants have joined a Latino population that's been making this city home for decades. Deka Ahmed is among them.

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FESHIR: Ahmed is home with her new baby boy and a toddler. She's wearing a headscarf and a long, flowing dress. Her apartment is furnished with traditional decor that reminds her of Somalia. Ahmed was born in Somalia. But she and her family fled to neighboring Kenya shortly after the Civil War broke out in the '90s. She first moved to Arizona back in 2009 as a refugee. But then she heard about Willmar, Minn. and decided to move here.

DEKA AHMED: (Through interpreter) There are a lot of Somali people in Willmar that I thought would be helpful. Neighbors that were from a refugee camp that lived in Willmar, they're here.

FESHIR: Ahmed's family has lived in the same refugee camp for 30 years. She struggled to reunite with them, especially after President Trump took office and began reducing the number of refugees allowed to enter the U.S.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: For many years, leaders in Washington brought large numbers of refugees to your state from Somalia...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Booing).

TRUMP: ...Without considering the impact on schools and communities and taxpayers.

FESHIR: Trump acted on a promise he'd repeated once again in Minnesota. This fall, the president issued an executive order directing governors and county officials to send in their consent for refugee resettlement by December 25 if they want to continue accepting refugees.

The U.S. State Department has received more than 30 letters of consent, including signatures from Republican governors in Utah and Tennessee. No governor has yet declined to accept refugees, and the president's executive order is facing a challenge in federal court. Minnesota's Kandiyohi County was the first in this state to vote yes to accepting more refugees, but it wasn't without dissent or controversy.

ROLLIE NISSEN: Well, I've been in Willmar since 1966.

FESHIR: Rollie Nissen is a 70-year-old retired shoe store manager. He's also the chair of the five-person county board.

NISSEN: The main problem that those folks have was not to vote no forever but to take a pause, delay the vote to allow more time for input.

FESHIR: Nissen says the majority of the emails he received asked him to vote against refugee resettlement. He was one of the two commissioners who voted against the measure.

NISSEN: Here, I'll just read some. Any info on the cost of the program? All our social service institutions are already overburdened. We need to take care of our - of the existing citizens first. Communities have no control over the inflow of refugees, yet they must share the cost of supporting them. And residents often don't speak out or even ask questions of the process for fear of being called racist.

FESHIR: Those who support refugees contend that racial bias does play a role in these decisions. Jessica Rohloff is an immigration advocate who grew up in Willmar. She says there remains little contact between Somali immigrants and some white residents who often seem uncomfortable with the changing demographic here.

JESSICA ROHLOFF: So the only thing they rely on is really scary stuff that they see on TV. And if the only thing I thought about Islam had to do with terrorism, I'd be pretty scared all the time, too. But I have had more experiences than that.

FESHIR: Rohloff traveled to a refugee camp in Kenya last year. That's where she met many refugees waiting to be reunited with their families in Willmar. It's also where she realized just how connected the two places a world apart really are. For NPR News, I'm Riham Feshir in Willmar, Minn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEA OF YEARS' "LEDGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.