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  • Writer's pictureJared Cramer

West Michigan county supports refugee resettlement after much public comment

Below is a January 28, 2020, article from MLive about our rector's advocacy for refugee resettlement in the county.

Ottawa County will continue to welcome in refugees.

After three hours of public comment from 73 people, the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday voted unanimously to support the continued resettlement of refugees within the county.

The resolution approved by the board Tuesday, Jan. 28, is in response to an executive order last year from President Donald Trump that requires local and state governments to give official consent to allow refugee resettlement in their communities.

Through giving its consent, Ottawa County effectively continues the status quo refugee resettlement that’s been happening the past 40 years in the county.

Bethany Christian Services, the only resettlement agency in the county, resettled a total 76 people in the county between 2015 and 2019, according to Ottawa County Administrator Al Vanderberg.

There were no heated back-and-forths during the lengthy public comment period Tuesday, and most of those who spoke wanted commissioners to support resettlement.

More than 150 people attended the meeting, and the conference space was standing room only.

Ottawa County refugee resettlement

A crowd listens to public comment during the Ottawa County Board of Commissioner's Jan. 28 meeting at the Ottawa county Administrative Building. All of the public comment heard pertained to the continued resettlement of refugees in the county, which commissioners later approved that meeting.

The majority of those who spoke in opposition wanted the board to table the measure until the economic impact of resettlement was studied.

Many treated the vote as a referendum on immigration. Some of the arguments in opposition spoke of immigrants as a threat, a burden on the government’s social programs and a people unwilling to “assimilate” into the culture.

“It’s not the immigration of yesterday,” Karl Nitz said. “It is actually an invasion. These people want your space.”

The president’s administration sets the number of refugees to be settled each year across the United States. Trump set the refugee cap for this year at 18,000 -- the lowest number since the program’s creation in 1980, according to the Associated Press.

Alene Miller said that when her ancestors immigrated they had “no social services at the time and had to struggle to stay alive and learn a new language, and they did.”

She then told a story implying refugees may commit violence because of the terror they flee.

“One day an African refugee plowed into a group of school children," Miller said. "Why? Because, well, who knows. You know, they come from areas of war and poverty. Living in a big city -- it’s a big, huge change in their lives.”

Some of those in favor spoke of continuing to accept refugees as a moral imperative, with many citing Bible verses and Christian values.

Rev. Jared Cramer framed the issue of not continuing to allow refugee resettlements as infringing upon religious practices. He said he is personally familiar with the issue because his church, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, resettled a Sudanese family.

“Because of this executive order, if you as a commissioner don’t support this letter of consent, the government will be taking our freedom to practice our religious faith and welcome the stranger,” he said.

Cramer argued against pausing the resolution to study the impact of refugee resettlement. Because it has been happening in the county for years, the impacts are well known, he said.

Others talked of the benefits of diversity and argued that refugees aren’t a burden on government resources but provide financial value and add to the workforce.

Jennifer Owens, president of Lakeshore Advantage, an economic development organization, warned commissioners that the area has a “talent crisis,” that the majority of employers are unable to fill existing jobs and that retirements in the next decade will present more talent gaps.

“Our community needs to do whatever we can to welcome talent to this area,” Owens said. “Our employers have had tremendous success with employing refugee talent. Whatever we can do as a community to get more hardworking individuals into this community will continue to grow our economy.”

Some in opposition spoke about the growing federal deficit and the desire to redirect federal refugee funding to veterans and other citizens in need.

Trump wrote in the order that he wants the federal government to be “respectful of those communities that may not be able to accommodate refugee resettlement.”

When governments have the resources and capacity to provide sustainable resettlement, it “maximizes the likelihood refugees placed in the area will become self-sufficient and free from long-term dependence on public assistance,” according to the executive order.

Deborah VanDyk asked if the county has solved its own problems of poverty before taking on refugee resettlements.

Vanderberg said the county does not incur costs for resettling refugees and that the program is federally funded. Bethany works with resettled refugees to find work and has a high rate of success, he said.

According to VanDyk, many of the countries where refugees come from are “war-torn for generations” and “often hate the United States.”

“So while the military fights overseas to protect us, you all are willing to gamble and allow people from these nations to infiltrate our communities," she told commissioners.

The refugees covered under the resettlement are the ones vetted by the Trump administration and given their OK to resettle in the United States.

Ottawa County Corporate Counsel Doug Van Essen wanted to make that point clear, saying in a memo to the board that he doesn’t want the county to “confuse our constituents that this is somehow making Ottawa County a sanctuary county for illegal refugees.”

Bing Goei, director of the Michigan Office For New Americans and a refugee who fled Indonesia as a child, said as a Christian he is called to make a case in favor of continued resettlement.

“So today I’m really pleading with you to continue, because you haven’t stopped it before, to continue to keep your county open to those who are fleeing persecution just as Jesus fled persecution,” he said. “To allow others to be able to contribute to your county. People that may not look like you or eat like you or worship like you.”

The unanimous vote approving the resolution was met with applause. Vanderberg will now have to sign a letter of consent and send it to the U.S. Department of State.

City commissioners in Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo and Kentwood have also passed similar resolutions reaffirming their support for welcoming refugees into their communities.

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