A small city in the Midwest is becoming "ground-zero" for a long-simmering battle over refugee resettlement that could have a ripple effect across the United States.
"The long-term future of literally every city and town in America will be affected by who wins in St. Cloud and Stearns County, Minnesota," says Ann Corcoran, one of America's foremost experts on the resettlement industry through her website Refugee Resettlement Watch.
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St. Cloud and the surrounding small cities of Central Minnesota have been the drop-off points for thousands of refugees coming from United Nations camps over the past 15 years.
This area was represented in Congress by conservative firebrand Michele Bachmann until 2015, and many of her supporters to this day believe the refugee industry tried to punish her for taking a strong stand against Muslim immigration.
Now, with the continued influx of refugees putting pressure on cramped schools and growing costs for policing and indigent healthcare – some taxpaying residents are beginning to ask a pointed question of themselves, and their elected politicians: "What's in it for us?"
In the absence of any objective data to answer that question, residents are prodding the St. Cloud City Council for an assessment of the federal resettlement program's impact on their community.
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"That's where this big rift came up, they say we don't want to see the numbers but they are taking 225 more refugees this year," said Ron Branstner, a local activist. "They don't want to see the costs."
If St. Cloud is successful in carving out a local role in determining refugee numbers flowing into its community, that will spread quickly to other cities, says Corcoran, who has followed the resettlement industry across all 50 states for the past decade.
But it's an uphill fight.
One council member, Jeff Johnson, has decided to champion the cause and is expected to introduce a resolution on Nov. 6 calling for a moratorium on refugee arrivals until a study can be completed on the economic impact of the resettlements.
So far Johnson says he has only one other councilman who is willing to listen to his argument that economics matter, but he is hoping to convince others that they will be better able to make decisions affecting the taxpayer if they have empirical data on refugee costs.
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His main obstacle is the mayor, David Keis.
"The mayor keeps saying over and over there is no local role in refugee resettlement, that it is strictly a federal program but that's just not true," Johnson told WND.
Keeping the facts under wrap
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Johnson is working with a citizens' group which has enlisted immigration expert Susan Tully, national field director for Washington, D.C.-based Federation of American Immigration Reform or FAIR.
"We need an impartial study that can collect all of the facts by someone who does not have a dog in the fight," Tully told WND. "We are telling them we want a moratorium on all refugee resettlement until you can show us a study identifying all the costs associated with it because they've done a very good job of keeping it all under wraps."
The taxpayers are entitled to this information, she said.
"What are the test scores and results, for instance, in the schools in St. Cloud, Willmar, Austin and all the cities where they have been getting all these refugees and how do those scores compare to 10 years ago before they had large enclaves of refugees?"
Tully said it's a proven fact that the education of all students suffers when schools are overrun with refugees that don't speak English and require specialized interpreters and tutors.
Tully said she checked one particularly hard-hit school, the St. Cloud Learning Center, and found that 85 percent of its students were performing at levels below proficiency. The school serves a 98 percent African-American student population, many of which are refugees from East Africa.
She said there is a provision within the Refugee Act of 1980, signed by President Jimmy Carter, that requires cities to be involved in decisions about how many refugees they receive.
Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities and other nonprofits get paid by the federal government to seed cities with refugees. The more refugees, the more they get paid. So it should not be surprising that they claim cities and states have no say over the numbers of refugees being poured into their communities.
"Consultations are to occur regularly before the refugees are placed in a community," Tully said.
The federal law state this very clearly in the following subsection:
(A) The Director and the Federal agency administering subsection (b)(1) shall consult regularly (not less often than quarterly) with State and local governments and private nonprofit voluntary agencies concerning the sponsorship process and the intended distribution of refugees among the States and localities before their placement in those States and localities.
But activists like Branstner of Cold Spring, about 13 miles from St. Cloud, said city officials are uninformed and largely uninterested in fulfilling their role in overseeing the refuge program.
"We're finding out all these cities don't have any knowledge of what their role is," he told WND. "The federal code says if over saturation was to occur in a city they have to pull back. Well we have the largest percentage of secondary migration in the country, and our saturation numbers are way beyond the scale, so why are they allowing more to come into the city? But Lutheran Social Services doesn't want to stop this program because it's so lucrative, and they're totally ignoring this federal statute."
The role of 'BIG MEAT'
Branstner sees lots of winners when it comes to refugee resettlement. The meat-processing companies – Hormel, JBS Swift, Pilgrim's Pride – all benefit from the cheap labor. The transportation industry makes money shuttling the refugees to and from work.
But the biggest loser is the taxpayer.
So-called "Big Meat" – with most of the companies foreign-owned – has plants scattered throughout the Midwest in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, the Dakotas, Kansas and Colorado.
"These corporations, in cooperation with chambers of commerce, nonprofits like the Blandin Foundation, Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities, have transformed town after town throughout southern Minnesota since 1990," Branstner says.
He believes the taxpayer is subsidizing the meat industry's addiction to cheap refugee labor.
From 2002 to 2011 Stearns County was always in the black on its health and human services budget, but when it started getting massive numbers of Somalis moving in from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to work in the meat plants, the city started seeing cost overruns in its HHS budget.
By 2015 the deficit had eclipsed $1 million in that key county welfare department.
The interpreter's costs alone soared to $387,665 last year and are on a pace to equal or surpass that amount in 2017.
"I got the numbers from somebody inside their office but they didn't want anyone to know they are going in the hole," Branstner said. "They said in the newspaper 'Ron Branstner's numbers, we don't know where they came from…' Finally they had an audit and we called them on it and they were almost $1.2 million in debt in just one year for health and human services. Just the interpreters' costs alone are through the roof in Stearns County."
And the demographic transformation over a 10-year period has been stunning.
Towns like St. Cloud, Austin, Cold Spring, Willmar, Worthington and Melrose have gone from a demographic consisting of mainly white working-class families to 15-20 percent East African immigrants.
St. Cloud is now 18 percent Somali Muslim and the once-dominant demographic of white Lutheran and Catholic families is in free fall.
The numbers are even higher when it comes to young people of school age. The student body at one high school, Apollo High, is more than 25 percent Somali and it's growing almost as fast at cross-town rival St. Cloud Tech. Racial tensions at both schools have been running high as Somali students claim they are victims of bullying based on their Muslim faith, while white families claim the Somalis gets special rights and privileges not afforded to others.
Roughly 20 percent of the St. Cloud school district’s 10,000 students are English-language learners, most of them with ties to Somalia.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a federal civil rights complaint against the St. Cloud school district in 2011, alleging a hostile environment for the district’s Somali students that included "widespread and frequent harassment based in large measure, on religion," according to a Public Broadcasting article from last year. More than five years later, that lawsuit has led to even greater tensions, say residents.
So when Councilman Johnson and activists like Margaret Starry try to take on refugee resettlement, they are taking on the U.S. meat industry, the chambers of commerce, the nonprofits that profit from resettling refugees, the churches that consider it their gospel duty to help "the stranger" and the mosques associated with CAIR.
Assaulted in the park
For Starry, a petite grandmother from St. Cloud, the fight is very personal.
"My grandkids were assaulted at a school park on the Fourth of July," she explained to WND.
Her grandson, 9, and granddaughter, 6, were approached by a group of about 25 Somali boys.
"They came and surrounded them, and one of them exposed himself to them," Starry said. "My son-in-law talked to police. They started walking toward me and I started taking pictures of them, and then the boys go over to the police officers and say 'she's taking our picture, she can't do that!' The police said 'yes she can, she's in a public park it's legal to take pictures in a public space in America.'"
A police report is on file with the city of Waite Park, just outside St. Cloud, but no arrests were made.
"I gave the cops the pictures, and got license-plate numbers, and I never heard anything back from them," Starry said. "They surrounded my grandchildren, they intimidated them, others have said they have been treated the same way, they say 'this is our park, you can't come in here.'"
Here are just a few of the other incidents over the last few years that have residents on edge:
- Somali students staged a walkout at Tech High School to protest their grievances about discrimination. CAIR was able to negotiate a settlement requiring training for teachers and staff on how to be more sensitive to anti-Muslim bullying.
- Somali Muslims won a substantial sum of money in a 2008 lawsuit against the Gold'n Plump chicken plant in St. Cloud when they alleged their civil rights were being violated by the company's refusal to provide paid time off for daily prayer breaks and by not allowing Muslim workers to avoid handling pork.
- Somali refugee Muhiyahdim Mohamed Hassan, 16, stabbed a 20-year-old St. Cloud man to death at a house party in July 2015. The local Fox affiliate described Hassan only as a "violent stranger" who was not invited to the party.
- Ten St. Cloud residents were wounded, two critically, in a stabbing spree carried out by Somali refugee Dahir Ahmed Adan at the Crossroads Center mall in September 2016.
- Gov. Mark Dayton told residents at a St. Cloud community conversation in October 2015 that if they can't accept living with Somali refugees they should "find another state," because Minnesota was all-in with the resettlement program and needed the refugees to fill in gaps in its work force. “Our economy cannot expand based on white, B+, Minnesota-born citizens. We don’t have enough,” Dayton said.
When residents asked questions about why Somalis have had such a poor record of assimilation, Council on Black Minnesotans Community Program Specialist Kolloh Nimley turned the tables and blamed Minnesotans for the lack of assimilation.
“We need to take ownership of those concerns that we are raising. My question for you is, ‘What are you doing in St. Cloud, Central Minnesota to become a more inclusive society?’" Nimley said.
- A bitter mosque battle in 2015 ended with residents defeating a bid to build a mega mosque in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
- A mosque in St. Cloud was defaced, and it was presented by the local media as an example of rising "Islamophobia," but when the perpetrator was finally caught, he was a Muslim.
These occurrences and others have led to what Branstner calls "a whole new fresh batch of angry people."
"People don't see the transformation taking place in front of them, often until it's too late," Corcoran said. "Local news spins it. National news ignores it."
A national story playing out in St. Cloud
She said CAIR will likely be getting local Muslims out in force at the Nov. 6 council meeting but that could backfire as CAIR often brings national media attention.
"If it weren't for CAIR it wouldn't attract any national attention," Corcoran said. "Refugee resettlement is a national story and we need to have our views out there."
Corcoran said the New York Times and Washington Post are "CAIR chasers" who seek to do the Islamist organization's bidding but in the process come across as distant from the views of the average hard-working, taxpaying American.
CAIR has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and the terrorist organization Hamas, ties that were documented by the FBI in the Holy Land Foundation terror-financing trial of 2008 in Dallas.
"CAIR's presence actually is a detriment to the CAIR point of view because people don't like CAIR generally," Corcoran said. "And it gives us a chance to really look at the whole Islamic part of the debate, because they're Islamic supremacists. You don't believe they're in this because some poor Christian from Burma is a refugee and might get a job in St. Cloud do you? Everyone knows their agenda. It's about Islamization."
Too little, too late?
Starry said residents are clearly getting fed up but they need to channel their anger in productive ways, not just mouth off on Facebook.
"I see a lot of comments in the newspaper where people have had enough, and they're getting more vocal I think because of the things going on in the city council, they're starting to get out and come to meetings," she said. "We need more of that."
Starry said another sore point is the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities asking people to buy gifts for a Christmas charity targeting refugees.
"People are saying why would we do that when the Somalis are always front and center here, and the local people who are in need get what's left over?" she said. "And this is a Christmas thing and Somalis don't believe in Christmas, yet they will be first in line for the gifts? People are seeing that."
She said it is also getting more difficult for local poor to find Section 8 housing.
"Habitat for Humanity has built their last six or eight houses here for Somali families and the last one was a six-bedroom house," she said.
"A lot of people were upset about that," she adds. "We see our people getting poorer and poorer and they're getting forgotten. That's why we're seeing more people on drugs ...that's not an excuse or anything but they're getting to be pretty hopeless around here."
She said many businesses are leery of hiring Somalis but they get hired anyway because employers are afraid of lawsuits.
"You start to think about all this, after a while, and you remember that our governor said to find another state, but where would I go?" she said. "I wish I knew where we could go."
Gov. Dayton draped the governor's mansion in blue lights in honor of the Mogadishu bombing last week that killed more than 300 in Somalia's ongoing civil war.
"That's another thing, they've had civil war over there since 1990 but it's our fault you know, right?" Starry said.
"This moratorium is a big deal and it's going to be interesting how it plays out but if we can get rid of the mayor and some of our council members we have to find others to step up, because the Somalis will be right there ready to take up the slack."