Social Issues

Divisions loom over refugee resettlement in Chippewa Valley

Matthew Soerens of the refugee agency World Relief and Rep. Karen Hurd, R-Fall Creek, weigh in on controversy over the process of resettling approximately 75 refugees in the Chippewa Valley region.

By Marisa Wojcik | Here & Now

February 16, 2024 • West Central Region

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The Chippewa County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution calling for a pause on plans to bring refugees to the Chippewa Valley. While the resolution is nonbinding, it sends a message that mirrors some of the division within the community.

“We began just an exploratory process,” said Matthew Soerens, the vice president of advocacy and policy with World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency that works in Wisconsin.

In the spring of 2023, World Relief began looking for a community where refugees could find a new home.

“We began a process of consulting with local leaders, governmental leaders, as well as school boards, law enforcement, potential employers, landlords, local churches, and other faith and nonprofit organizations,” Soerens said about Eau Claire, “and really came to the conclusion that this is a community that is really eager to welcome refugees and we proposed that to the federal government, which has the ultimate authority on where refugees are resettled.”

In the fall of 2023, they held a public hearing and local news began covering plans to resettle roughly 75 refugees in the area.

“I started to get many, many calls, emails, emails, calls, Said state Rep. Karen Hurd, R-Fall Creek, whose district includes the east edge of Eau Claire.

“Are we prepared? Do we have the infrastructure in place?” she asked. “We would like our city officials to be able to evaluate it.”

Hurd said not being aware of the plans made her unprepared to address questions and concerns.

“It was just that the public wasn’t aware of it. Because, 75 people coming in from Minnesota and another state — they’re coming here on their own. They have the money to come here on their own. They’re moving their families here and they get a job. They’re people like you and I,” said Hurd. “But these are people that most likely are going to be dependent upon services.”

World Relief said that’s typically not the case.

“There’s a very strong focus on the federal refugee settlement program to help refugees find work within the first 90 days after they arrive and be economically self-sufficient as quickly as possible,” Soerens said. “Western Wisconsin has a lot of job needs actually right now, so that we can provide people who are authorized to work. It’s actually a win-win.”

“I am supportive of people coming to our country as long as they are coming legally, so, yes, absolutely, let them come,” Hurd said.

The lawmaker said her issue is proper public notice and input.

World Relief said they did have conversations with local stakeholders, as is required in the federal Refugee Act of 1980. The law says agencies like World Relief must work in close cooperation and advance consultation with state and local governments. The law also outlines criteria ensuring a refugee is not resettled in an area highly impacted.

But these requirements don’t go far enough for Hurd. She authored a bill that outlines specifics for contacting local elected officials.

When asked if this process would be the equivalent of seeking permission, Hurd said, “not at all. Input — that’s all this is. Could we be at the table too?”

“The reason we’re opposed to this bill is we think it is not necessary,” said Soerens. “We think there’s already a robust process for community consultation. We went through that process very carefully.”

The proposal says if a local official connects with a federal or nonprofit agency relating to refugee resettlement, it must be reported to every city, village, town, county, and school district touching a 100-mile radius from where a proposed refugee would be placed. Each local body contacted must take it up as a meeting agenda item and take public comment.

“It’s very conceivable that every single preliminary conversation about the possibility of refugee settlement would need to trigger more than a thousand meetings, followed by follow-up meetings that would be required, followed by potential resolutions in communities that are unlikely ever to see a refugee resettled into their neighborhood or community,” Soerens said.

“I don’t think it’s a burden at all,” said Hurd. “It’s actually very minimal, because they just have to be notified and if they want to be a part of the discussion, they can send a representative. So it would be those interested parties that want to.”

But representatives in Congress take issue with more than just notice.

In a letter from U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Minocqua, to the Eau Claire City Council, he wrote: “Plans by a controversial NGO to resettle a large number of refugees potentially from Somalia, Syria, and other unstable countries in the Eau Claire area have raised understandable concerns among local residents.”

The letter continued: “Given the dangerous conditions in these conditions and the Biden administration’s alarming track record when it comes to vetting newcomers, it is inconceivable that the local community would be kept in the dark in this way.”

“There’s been a lot of questions — what countries people are coming from,” said Soerens. “Our view is that’s the federal government’s job to figure out — to determine if these people have indeed fled a well-founded fear of persecution, which is the legal definition of a refugee. Have they been thoroughly vetted by our federal government? I think a lot of the concerns people have are based on confusion, which is really understandable because the dynamics at the border, which are really important, are in the news every single day.”

Hurd agreed on confusion between refugee resettlement and migrants crossing the U.S. border with Mexico.

“I would say there is confusion, unequivocally,” she said. “There is a huge difference. A refugee is vetted by our government and it’s a very rigorous process they go through that takes years and years for them to finally be approved.”

Because of this confusion and other steps outlined in the 1980 federal law, World Relief worries about the message this bill sends.

“Is it stigmatizing refugees?” Soerens asks. “It implies that we need this notice and potential resolution process about the arrival of a small number of people from these countries.”

“The narrative in the press and in the community has been dominated by a small minority opposed to the planned refugee resettlement,” said Josh Miller, a member of the Eau Claire City Council who spoke at its Jan. 23 meeting on a resolution he authored to support the program.

The city council unanimously passed a resolution affirming support of refugees making Eau Claire their new home.

“I think the vast majority of people in Eau Claire have been very enthusiastic about this idea of welcoming a relatively small number of refugee families to the community,” said Soerens.

In February, the first family arrived in the area, coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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