Over the holiday break the Fargo Forum announced a provocative and unfortunate choice for their Person of the Year 2015. Namely, Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota CEO Jessica Thomasson.
I say provocative because LSS contracts with the federal government to administer refugee resettlement in North Dakota, something that has been conducted in a manner that is something less than endearing to area citizens and local government officials.
I say unfortunate because, at at time when LSS desperately needs to win over a majority of the public in the Fargo/Moorhead region which is skeptical of refugee resettlement, they now must do so with the endorsement of a newspaper whose editorial position is that the aforementioned majority is a bunch of knuckle-dragging xenophobes.
Those are the Forum’s words, not mine.
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]While refugees represent about 3 percent of the Cass County (Fargo) population, they represent 15 percent of households receiving SNAP (food stamps) benefits and about one third of households receiving TANF (welfare) benefits according to data from Cass County Social Services.[/mks_pullquote]
Fairly or unfairly, a lot of people are mistrustful of refugee resettlement. They feel that refugees represent a potentially extremist element in their communities as well as a disproportionate burden on public assistance and law enforcement resources. On that latter point, according to what little data we have available to us, they sort of have a point. While refugees represent about 3 percent of the Cass County (Fargo) population, they represent 15 percent of households receiving SNAP (food stamps) benefits and about one third of households receiving TANF (welfare) benefits according to data from Cass County Social Services.
There is nothing xenophobic about thinking these numbers are problematic. One could argue that this data is evidence that our refugee population could be served better by those resettling them. Perhaps if they were better prepared, and better integrated into our communities, they’d have less need for public assistance. I’d like to have that discussion.
But thanks to the work of the Forum editorial board and other progressive commentators in the region we aren’t having a debate over how refugees and North Dakotans can better live together. Instead those who voice perfectly valid and common sense concerns are berated for being racists. Even local officials, who feel that LSS does a poor job in coordinating with them to serve incoming refugees, feel afraid to speak out lest they suffer the fate of an East Grand Forks teacher who was suspended for expressing concerns about the attendance record of refugee students.
You get the sense from Robin Huebner’s report for the Forum about the award that Thomasson herself saw how problematic this recognition by the paper is. “When the head of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota learned she was The Forum’s 2015 Area Person of the Year, her surprised reaction acknowledged it was a controversial choice,” Huebner reports, writing that Thomasson’s one-word response was “yikes.”
Yes. Yikes, indeed. The Forum just made Thomasson’s job a lot harder.
Not that Thomasson herself has been great at it. Her attempts at “myth busting” about refugee resettlement often come off as evasive and self-serving.
Anyway, here’s to hoping that in the new year the Forum stops using the refugee issue as a blunt political weapon with which to bloody its ideological enemies and gets serious about illuminating the issue so that we can all – Americans and New Americans like – find some peace.