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City releases report on Fargo refugee impact, says costs can't be estimated

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Ayat Ibrahim, 22, of Fargo speaks Thursday, April 13, during a meeting at City Hall where the Fargo Human Relations Commission released a report on the costs and benefits of refugee resettlement. Archie Ingersoll / Forum News Service2 / 2

FARGO — City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn was a no-show at a Thursday, April 13, meeting where the Fargo Human Relations Commission released a controversial report, requested by Piepkorn in October, on the costs and benefits of refugee resettlement.

Piepkorn was the only city commissioner not at the City Hall meeting attended by over 100 people. Barry Nelson, a member of the Human Relations Commission, told The Forum he believed Piepkorn was on vacation.

"We did schedule this six weeks ago. Unfortunately, (Piepkorn) cannot be with us today, and so we're disappointed about that," Nelson told the crowd.

The 20-page report did not answer Piepkorn's central question of how much refugee resettlement costs the city. However, it appears the commissioner is on his own fact-finding mission. Minutes from a Finance Committee meeting on March 27 show that he asked city staff to prepare a separate report on what the city spends on refugee programs.

The Human Relations Commission's report said there are numerous obstacles to estimating the cost of refugees in Fargo. However, the report did point to figures from national studies that suggested immigrants benefit the economy.

"On average, a first generation immigrant is cost positive in North Dakota by approximately $3,250 per individual," the report said, citing a 2016 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, a group of nonprofit organizations in Washington, D.C.

Nelson said the nature of Piepkorn's question about refugee costs went against the Human Relations Commission's mission "to promote acceptance and respect for diversity and discourage all forms of discrimination." The commission eventually decided to look into not just costs but also benefits, he said.

"To isolate a group of residents in an attempt to identify costs is next to impossible and illegitimate without context," Nelson said.

Several officials commented in support of the report during the hourlong meeting, but the floor was not opened to the public. In the audience was Cass County Commissioner Chad Peterson, who told The Forum he believes a cost figure can be reached by tallying the refugee-related expenses of government agencies such as social services, public health and police.

But Peterson, who has previously expressed concern about the impact of refugees in Fargo-Moorhead, said no one wants to do such a calculation for fear of being called a racist or xenophobe. He said this is the wrong way to approach the issue.

"Government shouldn't be in the business of feelings and hugs and kisses," he said, adding that having a cost figure would allow local governments to ask state or federal governments for more money to help in resettling refugees.

State officials will attempt a more in-depth study soon. Gov. Doug Burgum signed a bill this week that calls for a study of refugee resettlement in North Dakota. The study will look at various issues, including any effects refugees may have on wages or working conditions, housing, law enforcement and government services.

Mayor Tim Mahoney told the crowd that Fargo has to embrace people of all backgrounds so the city can keep growing. "We have a lot of jobs out there. We can't get them all filled," he said.

Ayat Ibrahim was among those invited to speak during the meeting. The 22-year-old Fargo woman, whose family fled violence in Iraq when she was 12, said immigrants are willing to take difficult jobs and build their lives from there. "I need to work," she said. "I feel useless not doing something for this country."

Also asked to speak was Mike Arntson of Cardinal Glass Industries. He said immigrants make up about 65 percent of the company's workforce in Fargo. "I couldn't imagine where we'd be without that group of workers," he said.

Piepkorn began raising concerns about the local government cost of refugee resettlement in September not long after a 20-year-old Somali refugee, who had previously lived in Fargo, stabbed 10 people at a St. Cloud, Minn., mall.

At a heated City Commission meeting in October, Piepkorn told an official with Lutheran Social Services, which is contracted by the federal government to resettle refugees in North Dakota, that the group must ensure such attacks do not happen again.

During the same meeting, city staff shared a report, also requested by Piepkorn, that got into how much refugees cost taxpayers. But he questioned the credibility of the numbers presented.

Commissioners then agreed to have the Human Relations Commission examine the topic and draft a report, which was released Thursday.

A group upset with Piepkorn's views on refugee resettlement launched an effort last month to recall him from office. The group issued a statement Thursday, criticizing his absence from the meeting.

"With his feet to the fire, Dave Piepkorn chose a vacation over accountability," the statement read. Multiple phone messages left for Piepkorn were not returned Thursday.