While racist propaganda circulates Fargo, and a city leader targets refugees, divisions among refugee and activist organizations threaten to undo cooperation efforts
By C.S. Hagen
FARGO – The Fargo/Moorhead Refugee Advisory Council clarified recent actions Tuesday by doubling down on its stance against the recall effort of a Fargo city commissioner primarily due to threats, but not without admonishment.
“We have a simple message,” the Fargo/Moorhead Refugee Advisory Council, or FMRAC, said in a response to an email and directed to City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn. “Please do not spread false rumors. Refugees have already suffered enough, and they don’t deserve to be targeted the way they are right now.”
On Sunday, FMRAC directors invited Piepkorn to an honorary membership on the council. So far, Piepkorn has not accepted. Fauzia Haider, a former FMRAC member, resigned from FMRAC last week stating decisions were being made “behind the scenes.”
While rumors swirled and fingers pointed in directions few knew how to follow after FMRAC advocated an immediate end to Piepkorn’s recall efforts, FMRAC did admit the controversy created a division within the council.
The recall committee remains committed to its efforts to recall Piepkorn, organizer Erin Buzick said.
“One of our former officers was conflicted, and decided to support the recall effort publicly, while many others expressed the support only in an individual capacity,” FMRAC said. Currently, FMRAC has no official council spokesperson, but plans electing one on Sunday, Hukun Abdullahi, a member, said.
“The council understood the need for people who wanted to do this, but at the same time understood the repercussions this could have in the future. This is our city after all. The council did not want to escalate the cost-issues, which is enabling the commissioner to go after the refugees in the first place.”
Piepkorn took aim last year at Lutheran Social Services during City Commissioner meetings, saying he wanted an investigation into how much money LSS was spending on resettlement programs, how much immigrants are costing the city, and if New Americans are related to increased crime rates. Last October, reporters from Breitbart News, the “alt-right” online news forum formerly led by Steve Bannon, showed up at the meeting, a coincidence Piepkorn denied he had anything to do with.
Lutheran Social Services is the organization contracted by the state to manage the arrival of refugees and immigrants to North Dakota.
After a six-month study, the Fargo Human Relations Commission released a report declaring that although financial statistics focused on a particular class or race of people were at best difficult to obtain, refugees and immigrants were good for Fargo.
FMRAC further stressed that recall volunteer safety issues are the council’s most pressing concern.
“As mentioned in the press release, the safety of the community and community members outweighs any issues that are on the table,” FMRAC said. “We were informed about the incidents that were happening during the signature collection process, and in order to prevent any kind of escalation of violence, we decided to take this decision collectively as the council.
“Fight pushes people away, and puts people in precarious situations to defend rather than negotiate. Ironically, many refugees who are here do understand the consequences of picking up fight especially with their own government. The current political climate and other barriers do not give our refugees a whole lot of wiggle-room to speak up.”
FMRAC was not aware of any incidents that were reported to police.
Recall committee volunteer Zach Echola said volunteers go out in pairs, and he knows of no instances where they have been threatened. Buzick reported that recall volunteers and organizers have experienced threats by those that should be allies, and discussed one case where a volunteer was met by someone who said they didn’t like foreigners.
On Monday, April 24, the 27th day of Nisan of the Hebrew calendar, the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, racist, Trump-supporting posters were pinned to telephone poles in downtown Fargo. The posters went up shortly after the Fargo Human Relations Commission announced findings of a six-month study that showed refugees and immigrants in Fargo are good for the city. Fargo Police do not have any suspects in custody at this time.
FMRAC’s initial announcement to end the recall efforts came days after the posters were discovered.
“We were late in the game to know about the incidents, to be honest,” FMRAC said. “Had we known about this earlier, we would have taken this step calling to end the petition much sooner. It’s our understanding that volunteers were made aware of the resistance they would face, but the remarks from some specific households were truly discriminatory and threatening.
“Even a simple message such as ‘Go back to your own country,’ can be very hurtful and the council understands that.”
FMRAC further reported it is “disheartened that it has lost some of its dedicated allies,” but plans to reunify ethnic communities and the upcoming elections may bring also about some change.
“Even the commissioner’s great-grandfather left Poland to seek better futures for his children,” FMRAC said. “If you are concerned about the costs, please understand that the initial cost to help us find a job or to learn English is nowhere comparable to the cost of engaging in a warfare with another country, which ends up creating more refugees.
“Please advocate against wars instead of refugees. The council believes the taxes generated from refugees via employment, property ownership, and entrepreneurship not only replenishes those initial costs, but helps achieve economic stability for years to come.”
Former City Commissioner Mike Williams said Piepkorn has no credible basis for his statements, which included CEO of Lutheran Social Services Jessica Thompson’s inflated salary, tripling the amount of funds spent on a new “Taj Mahal” building, and blaming LSS for being behind the recall effort. In the past, Williams said he has buried Piepkorn with facts, to prove points.
“I’ve been involved with New Americans for quite a few years now,” Williams said. “I understand we are better together, a stronger community with diversity.”
He disagrees with the recall effort and told the recall committee as much over the weekend when he said they challenged him.
“I was just stunned,” Williams said. “It’s well documented that I’ve been an ally of New Americans. I went on to say that our goal here is to get the facts out, and I don’t see how the recall will help with that.”
Buzick said she challenged Williams on issues. “He pushed very, very hard for us to drop the effort,” Buzick said. “I was not able to get to the end of my inquiry before he cut me off and started screaming. His tirade was so intense, that one member left the room to compose themselves. He then basically wrapped it up telling us we were naive idiots.”
Williams, who said he is an activist who happened to get elected, said the recall committee is filled with good people with good intentions, but the dissension is hurting their cause.
“It’s their prerogative, and if they want to do that that’s fine. I didn’t threaten them and I didn’t call them naive. It’s important we keep it together, they’re laughing at us when they see dissent.”
The study released in March entitled Refugee Resettlement in Fargo report, agreed that refugees and immigrants are good for Fargo.
A first generation immigrant is cost positive in North Dakota by approximately $3,250, and long term benefits are incalculable, according to the report.
Additionally, New Americans, or refugees and immigrants, make up approximately three percent of North Dakota’s population, according to the American Immigration Council. They are employers, taxpayers, and workers in fields few local citizens are willing to go, according to the Refugee Resettlement in Fargo report. Foreign-born residents contributed $542.8 million to Fargo’s GDP in 2014, and have a spending power of $149.4 million, the report states.