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Cook County votes to support refugee resettlement

Cook County Board of Commissioners 2019-20. Photo courtesy of Cook County
Cook County Board of Commissioners 2019-20. Photo courtesy of Cook County

Following a 5-0 vote to support refugee resettlement within county lines, the Cook County Board of Commissioners kept a door to the community open, according to Commissioner Heidi Doo-Kirk.

“We’re not being asked to open a door,” she said. “We’re being asked to close a door that has been open.”

The unanimous vote of consent allowing resettlement of refugees in Cook County came after a lengthy discussion by the commissioners and the county attorney. Preceding this were more than a dozen people speaking during the public comment period of today’s meeting on this same topic. A large majority of those who spoke during the public comment period said they were in favor of the county supporting refugee resettlement. However, several local residents did speak against the notion of allowing refugee resettlement in Cook County. Those speaking against refugee resettlement cited factors including housing and the need for comprehensive immigration reform across the country.

According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, people with refugee status in the United States have fled their home countries because they experienced, or have a well-founded fear of, persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership in a social group. The U.S. Department of State oversees the Refugee Admissions Program, and welcomes refugees of special humanitarian concern into the county to resettle through various resettlement agencies, according to DHS.

County Attorney Molly Hicken opened the discussion on refugee resettlement during the regular portion of Tuesday’s meeting. Hicken recommended that the commissioners either discuss and consent to allowing resettlement here, or discuss and consciously decide to exclude refugees from resettlement in Cook County.

Hicken said the issue was on the agenda for the county because of an executive order issued by President Donald Trump in Sept. 2019 requiring consent by local governments before a refugee could be resettled in their jurisdiction.

Using a prepared slideshow to guide her discussion, Hicken noted that no refugees have resettled in Cook County in the past decade. Hicken said that figure is not likely to change regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s vote as there is not a resettlement agency within 100 miles of the county. This 100-mile threshold is a federal requirement and there is currently not one outside of the metro area in the state of Minnesota. The resettlement agencies are nonprofits that receive funding from the federal government, according to Hicken, who referenced a DHS report stating that more than 7,700 refugees have resettled in Minnesota during the past five years.

That being the case, affirming consent to allow refugees does not necessarily mean refugees will arrive to Cook County at any point in the future, according to Hicken.  

Furthermore, Hicken was clear she was not trying to influence how the commissioners planned to vote Tuesday. Her role was to inform the county on any potential risks involved with voting one way or the other. Hicken said there was little risk in voting to approve any potential resettlement.

Commissioner Doo-Kirk made the motion to have interim County Administrator Rena Rogers draft a letter of consent regarding refugee resettlement in Cook County. The motion was seconded by Commissioner Dave Mills and then supported by vote by all of the commissioners.

For his part, Mills said this topic generated the most emails and correspondence on any particular issue from constituents since he was elected to office in 2018. All of the emails and conversations were in support of refugee resettlement in Cook County, Mills added.

The audio below contains local residents sharing their thoughts on this topic from the public comment period of Tuesday’s meeting.