- Associated Press - Friday, February 3, 2017

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Some North Dakota Republican lawmakers are pushing a measure that would let communities and the governor temporarily ban refugee resettlement while data is being collected, a move critics believe is discriminatory and probably illegal.

A hearing on the measure Friday at the state Capitol comes as legal battles are playing out across the U.S. due to President Donald Trump’s travel ban on citizens from seven predominantly Muslim nations.

“The purpose is not to bar refugee resettlement within North Dakota,” said Rep. Christopher Olson, R-West Fargo, the bill’s primary sponsor. He said the intent of the measure is to allow local and state governments to “have a say” in the refugee resettlement process.

After a fierce debate over the measure, the House Government and Veterans Affairs Committee voted Friday to just study the issue for now.

Olson said some schools and social service programs are being financially stressed because the federal government is not providing sufficient funding for the state’s refugee resettlement program, which is administered by Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.

Opponents of the bill say it does not take into account the economic contributions made by refugees, or their role in diversifying the mostly white and ultraconservative red state.

Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota CEO Jessica Thomasson said the measure unfairly singles out refugees “because of an underlying assumption that this group of people creates a special type of burden that someone with a different immigration status would not.”

Thomasson said the LSS has helped resettle about 500 people annually for the past five years. About 70 percent of the refugees are resettled in Fargo and West Fargo in Cass County, followed by Grand Forks and Bismarck.

“We have no input on anything that takes place. We want to be involved. We want to be heard,” said Chad Peterson, chairman of the Cass County Commission, who spoke in favor of the legislation.

Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown, who opposes the measure, told the committee that “whether intended or not” the legislation “is sending the wrong message to not only our new American friends and neighbors but also to outside audiences.”

“Our communities ought not to be put in positions of holding hearings about which classes or types of people are welcome,” Brown said.

The bill, among other things, would allow data such as crime and employment rates to be collected on refugees.

Jennifer Cook, a Bismarck-based lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the measure “strikes a blow against American and North Dakota values” and is likely unconstitutional.

Most of the refugees in recent years have come from Bhutan, Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq and Sudan, Thomasson said.

Zahra Mohamed, 33, of Bismarck, was one of about 100 people who attended the hearing Friday. She fled Somalia 10 years ago and resettled in North Dakota. She has since learned English, started a family and earned a college degree. She expects to attend medical school in Grand Forks next year and wants to stay in the state as a rural doctor.

She said in an interview that the bill, along with Trump’s travel ban, is unfairly being used as a “scare tactic” against refugees.

“Fear of the unknown is real in North Dakota,” she said.

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