I grew up two hours from Bismarck, ND – it was one of the “big towns” where we’d go to get specialist medical care or shop for anything fancy. So it pains me to hear that they had to have a fight to accept refugees, though I’m heartened to know that those who fought, won, and refugees will still be accepted:
A meeting last week where the commission was supposed to vote on Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota’s request to continue resettling refugees in the county was rescheduled for Monday after more than 100 residents wanted to speak on the subject. The bigger venue at Horizon Middle School’s cafeteria in Bismarck still wasn’t sufficient. More than 500 people filled the space, with some standing outside the cafeteria’s doors. […]
Tresor Mugawaneza, who came to Bismarck as a 16-year-old refugee from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, said his story is proof that refugees make positive contributions to the community. He quickly picked up English, became a soccer standout and got a job washing dishes at the Wood House Restaurant in Bismarck. He said he rode his bike to the restaurant — even in the winter. Now a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Mary, Mugawaneza hopes to run his own business someday.
“We are not in this country just to take your government money,” Mugawaneza said. “In fact, we are here to work and be successful in life just like everybody else.”
The Republican politicians who spoke made a couple of obviously false arguments, one being that the prosperous town of 73 thousand can’t afford the crushing financial burden of 25 families. The other was that Bismarck should deal with the issues of Native Americans first, before they dealt with the refugees. As someone who grew up next to a reservation, all I can say is that problem hasn’t been addressed for the last 100 years, so why pick today?
The reality is that Bismarck, like other towns in the Dakotas, is desperately searching for people to fill jobs. The oil boom, and the migration of children to larger cities where they have more opportunity, have led to consistent 2.5% unemployment, which of course is more than full employment. This woman, who spoke at the meeting, hits it on the head:
Isabel Oliveira, a Brazilian immigrant who owns Bismarck’s James River Cafe with her husband, said the state should be taking in all the industrious people it can find to fill out its workforce.
“My business is shrinking because we don’t have enough workers,” Oliveira said. “We’re here talking about 25 refugees. We need 25,000 refugees.”
Bismarck has a climate where you can have weeks of humid 90-100 degree weather in the Summer, and weeks of 20 below (not wind chill, ambient temp) in the Winter. It doesn’t rain there much, and there’s not a hell of a lot of the culture that urban residents take for granted. The open jobs there are mostly low paying service jobs. Just as immigrants from Europe moved there in the early part of the last century because their desire for some kind of opportunity trumped the climate and other hardships, this new set of immigrants and refugees think Bismarck is a place where they can live and grow, even as the children and grandchildren of the first set of immigrants have left for urban centers that offer them more opportunity.
It’s sad to live somewhere that’s rejected by your children, but that’s the reality of the Dakotas, where it’s common to have a family where none of the children live within a couple hundred miles of the town where they grew up. Parents are right to mourn that – it would be better to live someplace where your kids were around the corner instead of a plane ride away. In a world where these parents weren’t mainlining Fox News, perhaps some of the media would point out that their children’s urban migration, while sad, was healthy, and that new immigrants are coming to Bismarck for the same reason as the olds’ parents rode the train to the prairie back in the beginning of the last century.
Instead, all that they hear is a narrative of fear and hatred, where the evil browns are launching an invasion of the prairie so they can become welfare kings and queens. Never mind that many of the ancestors of the pissed off olds at that meeting were recipients of a free quarter section of land via the Homestead Act, a gift from the government that’s worth more than $300K in today’s dollars.
So here we have a sad, unnecessary, divisive and ugly meeting, spurred on by mourning and frustration that a few so-called leaders are leveraging to keep themselves in office. At least there’s still a vocal minority in Bismarck that can rein in the worst of the Trump era, for now.