BISMARCK — With renewed interest in refugee resettlement coming from the top of the federal government, North Dakota officials and nonprofit workers anticipate the state will take in about five times as many refugees in the next federal fiscal year as it has this year.

Sara Stolt, chief operating officer of the state Department of Human Services, said North Dakota has committed to resettling 60 refugees during this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Next year, the state will aim to become home for between 350 and 450 refugees, Stolt said, though Dan Hannaher, North Dakota field director for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, expects the actual number will be more like 250.

Democratic President Joe Biden said in May he intends to set a goal to admit 125,000 refugees into the U.S. next fiscal year, up from a historically low cap of 15,000 set by former Republican President Donald Trump, who often said refugees could pose danger to American citizens. Biden said his predecessor's lack of commitment to those who have been forced out of their home country by violence or persecution "did not reflect America’s values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees."

For part of the last decade, North Dakota resettled the most refugees per capita of any state, but the number of new arrivals took a nosedive while Trump occupied the White House. As recently as fiscal year 2016, North Dakota accepted more than 500 refugees, mostly from Bhutan, Somalia and Iraq. That figure came in at 47 last year, according to the U.S. State Department.

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During the current fiscal year, which began several months before Trump left office, the state has taken in just 19 refugees, including 11 from the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, four from Syria, three from South Sudan and one from Somalia.

Across the nation, the infrastructure for resettling refugees diminished over the four years under Trump, so the groups focused on bringing in the legal immigrants are still figuring out their capacity for ramping back up under the new federal administration, Stolt said.

The January closure of Lutheran Social Services added another layer of complication for North Dakota since the Fargo-based nonprofit group handled most of the duties associated with resettling refugees in the state. Government officials and former LSS employees quickly moved to pick up the pieces, and within a few months, a new process for resettling and acclimating refugees began to come into focus.

Maryland-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, or LIRS, stepped in to take over the resettling of refugees during their first 90 days in North Dakota. Those responsibilities include securing housing for new arrivals, providing spending money and helping them gain Social Security numbers and employment. The organization recently opened a first-of-its-kind field office in Fargo and hired Hannaher and four other former LSS employees to lead operations in the state.

Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota headquarters in Fargo, seen in 2015 before the organization shut its doors in 2021. Forum file photo
Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota headquarters in Fargo, seen in 2015 before the organization shut its doors in 2021. Forum file photo

The state Department of Human Services took charge of helping resettled refugees to become self-sufficient over the next five years of their lives in North Dakota, though those services have been contracted out mostly to former LSS employees as well. The department will bid out a more permanent contract for providing the services later this year. Hannaher said LIRS will likely put together a proposal to perform the long-term duties as well.

The department has also created four positions to oversee the refugee program, including administrators focused on health and unaccompanied minors. Holly Triska-Dally, a North Dakota native who has worked for the Peace Corps, NASA and immigrant support organization Bismarck Global Neighbors, began her role as state refugee coordinator for the department on Monday, July 12. All of the state's involvement in refugee services is covered by about $3 million a year in federal funding.

Due to the novelty of LIRS' field office, the federal government is only allowing the organization to resettle refugees within a 100-mile radius of Fargo unless they have a family connection somewhere else in the state. That means Fargo and Grand Forks will be the top resettlement locations for now, but the state Legislature recently directed the department and other relevant organizations to come up with a plan for resettling refugees in at least five "geographically diverse" communities throughout the state. Hannaher speculated that Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck and Minot will likely be among the five.

Hannaher knows some North Dakotans are opposed to refugees coming into the state, but he sees three compelling reasons to accept them: It's the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective, it promotes American national security interests and refugees provide much-needed labor and support to the local economy.

"I think (refugee resettlement efforts) have been a hidden secret of the United States," Hannaher said. "One of our great successes has been our welcoming of refugees."