David Lias

All sorts of red flags start waving as soon as you start reading the Dec. 20 news release from Gov. Kristi Noem regarding Executive Order 13888 that was issued by President Trump on Sept. 26. The order requires consent from state and local governments for federal resettlement of refugees in their area.

On Dec. 19, Gov. Noem did just that – she issued a letter of consent to Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo in response to Trump’s executive order. She also immediately dished out praise for Trump – basically unfurling the first of many red flags.

“Thanks to the leadership of President Trump, the strengthened screening process for refugees entering the United States can give South Dakotans increased confidence that those entering are coming for the right reasons,” said Noem. “For the communities that want to welcome these refugees, I support giving them that opportunity.”

In other words, Gov. Noem apparently believes refugees are attempting to enter the United States for the “wrong” reasons and one of the best ways she can deal with it is to hand off this perceived “problem” to South Dakota communities.

Let’s talk about refugees for a moment. There’s a good chance that the nonsense that our president has spouted for nearly four years now has many readers (and apparently Gov. Noem) believing that refugees want to come to the United States for mainly one reason: to do no good.

Such ignorance has done great harm to our nation during the Trump presidency.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) defines a refugee as a person who is living outside of his or her country of nationality or habitual residence who is unwilling or unable to return to that country because of a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political origin.

Let that sink in. They come here, or to other countries, because of a WELL-FOUNDED FEAR. A fear of their safety. The safety of their families. A fear, likely, that their lives are in danger.

Our governor has the audacity to state that, thank goodness, we now have an executive order that makes sure they are coming here for the “right” reasons.

Refugees are admitted with refugee status as determined by United States Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS), a division of the Department of Homeland Security. All refugees must meet the specific refugee criteria as stated in the refugee definition in order to be allowed into the United States under that category. These rules were in place long before Trump was president; in fact, they existed when Noem was first elected to the U.S. House. She should have an understanding of how they work.

Persons who enter under this category are eligible for Permanent Residency after one year of arrival and are eligible for citizenship within five years. All persons with refugee status are also employment authorized from the time of arrival into the U.S.

But wait, there’s more. The executive order that Trump signed in September and that Noem signed off on just a couple weeks ago changes federal immigration policy by establishing a refugee admissions ceiling of 18,000 into the country.

Some quick math tells us that every state in the union can now accept a whopping 360 refugees. Let’s pretend that all of the refugees allowed in the United States could only settle in South Dakota, evenly, in each county. That means every one of our counties would see its population grow by roughly 273 people.

Would that be a bad thing? That’s a question that best could be answered by each county’s residents, but Census data notes that like other Great Plains states, South Dakota has seen a dropping population in its rural areas for many decades in a phenomenon known as "rural flight."

Between 1990 and 2000, nine counties in the state saw a population drop greater than 10 percent, with one county losing 19 percent of its population in just a decade.

Census data also shows that many areas of South Dakota are seeing increases in population. The Sioux Falls city area, large counties along Interstate 29, the Black Hills area and many Indian reservations have enjoyed growing populations. Lincoln County in particular is notable as the ninth fastest growing county (in terms of percentage) in the country.

I can’t help but think that some South Dakota counties would welcome refugees with open arms, not because of an executive order that sadly politicizes our once common, historical practice of welcoming those who are fleeing for their lives.

They would do it simply because it’s the right thing to do – on so many levels.

The publication Foreign Policy noted in early 2017 – at a time when Trump was throwing one monkey wrench after another at our nation’s immigration policies, effectively breaking them – that his actions were not only morally wrong but also economically harmful. Refugees, the publication noted, make a big contribution to the United States, as do people originating from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, and Somalia.

The publication notes, with reason, that not all refugees turn out to be exceptionally successful. I guess the same could be said about a lot of the people born here in the good ol’ USA, too.

Prejudice is a poor predictor of how refugees will fare. Foreign Policy notes that when Vietnamese “boat people” fled their country in the late 1970s and sought refuge elsewhere, they were seen as undesirable and often turned away. Eventually, many were allowed to settle in America.

Most arrived speaking little or no English, with few assets or relevant job skills. Yet Vietnamese refugees in the United States are now more likely to be employed than people born in America and have higher average incomes.

Vietnamese refugees in the United States are now more likely to be employed than people born in America and have higher average incomes. They have also played a key role in building trade and investment links with Vietnam.

One notable entrepreneur is David Tran, who founded Huy Fong Foods. Its main product is Sriracha chili sauce, that big red bottle you see in every Vietnamese restaurant. Most of what he makes is exported to Asia, something that Trump ought to approve of, given his obsession with America’s trade balance.

Refugees contribute to the economy in many ways: as workers, entrepreneurs, innovators, taxpayers, consumers and investors. Their efforts can help create jobs; raise the productivity and wages of American workers; increase capital returns; stimulate international trade and investment; and boost innovation, enterprise, and growth.

Noem, speaking of Trump’s executive order and her signing of a letter of consent regarding it, said, “These assurances and a responsible screening process ensure that South Dakota’s interests are best protected so we can support continued participation in the program.”

South Dakota’s interests have never been put in danger by refugees. The state’s future, however, may suffer because so few refugees will be settling here thanks to Trump and people who think like him.

Betty Oldenkamp, the president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota, told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader last month that South Dakota will get fewer than 80 refugees this year. That would be the fewest number of refugees resettled in the state since 1980, the year the nation’s refugee resettlement program was created. In 2014, the state took in 536 refugees.

“We really think that it’s important for South Dakota to continue to welcome people, especially those that have experienced persecution,” Oldenkamp said.

Sadly we can’t. We can’t because of draconian immigration policies. Horrible policies regarding refugees that Noem regretfully credits “to the leadership of President Trump.”

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