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Commissioners move slow on refugee request





A 14-year-old refugee, alone and without family, is in need a home in the United States.

Delton couple Kim and Thang Nguyen, who are licensed to provide foster care, want to provide it.

First, however, Barry County commissioners must allow it.

They are being asked to authorize a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that states the county's consent to allowing the resettling of unaccompanied refugee minors with licensed foster families in the county by Bethany Christian Services.

Bethany has never before placed refugee adult or families in the county, according to Jane Trejo, Bethany's refugee employment program manager.

But, before her presentation was offered Tuesday and commissioners' questions answered at their  committee of the whole meeting, objections to Bethany's request were the first order of business.

During public comment immediately following the Pledge of Allegiance, Eldon Shellenbarger of Hastings got up and told commissioners their priorities must lie with their citizens.

“I have a real issue with this and I’m not prejudiced by any means,” Shellenbarger said. “We have homelessness right here in Barry County. There’s a man living down in the Kmart parking lot in his automobile. …We have homeless camps in Barry County, but yet you want other people in Barry County who are not citizens – and take care of them first before we take care of our own people. ...It’s not our job. It’s not our duty. It’s not our responsibility but to take care of our own people first.”

Joel Ibbotson of Rutland Charter Township said the public was, more or less, blindsided by the request for refugee resettlement since it came just days before what was stated as a Jan. 10 deadline.

“I would hope, before we get all the details on this, that we do not make a decision. ...This is an important hot button topic. ...It’s too little too late. I hope every single commissioner here votes no.”

The quick turnaround for the request was a concern for Commissioners Vivian Conner and Jon Smelker as well.

President Donald Trump issued an executive order on Sept. 26 that requires refugee resettlement agencies like Bethany to obtain written consent from state and county governments to continue refugee resettlement work in that county. The written consent must be in the form of a letter addressed to Pompeo.

Initially, the order was intended to go into effect within 90 days of issuance.

According to the information from Bethany, “It was our understanding that, starting Dec. 25. 2019, refugees would not be permitted to resettle into a state or locality unless written consent is provided by the governor and a local official. We have since been given an extended date of Jan. 10, 2020, for compliance with the executive order.”

If a governor consents, but a county does not, refugees will not be permitted to resettle in that locality.

“In other words, failure to provide consent from either the governor or local officials will result in a severe disruption to the lives of refugees and their families and would threaten the long-term stability of the refugee resettlement program.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has already submitted a letter of consent for the state.

Now Bethany, along with the state's refugee coordinator Ben Cabanaw, are requesting a letter from the commissioners that provides written consent for Bethany to resettle refugees in the county.

Trejo explained that part of the reason for the delay in getting this request to the county is that they initially thought cities and townships were the local units of government that would be responsible for handling these requests.

“We’ve been reaching out to cities and townships over the last three months.”

Once it was clarified that they had to have county approval, Bethany moved to make the request. However, the county commissioners' last meeting in 2019 was Dec. 17, which eliminated weeks in which this request could have been considered by the board.

Commissioners considered acting on Tuesday, Jan. 7, and discussed approving the request then to meet the Jan. 10 deadline. That, however, would have deviated from typical board procedure of recommendations coming out of committee of the whole meetings followed by action approval at formal board meetings.

And there were questions from commissioners about the potential impact of the program.

When Smelker's motion, supported by Conner, approved recommending approval of the letter to the board which meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14, Commissioner Ben Geiger voted against it.

Geiger expressed concern about missing the Jan. 10 deadline.

“Is there a risk that the placement will be jeopardized?” he asked.

Trejo said, “We’re new to this. We don’t know how strict. It’s up to the State Department to decide. We’re living with a little bit of uncertainty. I would hope, if it’s done in a week, there wouldn’t be an issue with that.”

Conner said she believed the letter could be submitted after Jan. 10 without jeopardizing the placement.

Conner expressed concern about the potential impact the Bethany program would have on foster family programs and asked for accountability from Bethany as far as affected populations.

“Barry County was having trouble getting foster families a while ago,” she said, pointing to an expectation that Bethany would do outreach and provide data with regard to the potential impact of refugee resettlement.

“This is new for us,” Trejo replied. “Kalamazoo, Kent (counties) are the bulk of our coverage.”

Smelker, supported by Conner, voted to recommend approval of the letter to the full board next Tuesday.

After the meeting, Smelker said that the Jan. 10 date was not a concern, mentioning Conner's statement that the letter could be submitted after that date.

“There's things I want to talk to other people, our court, about foster care in Barry County,” he said. “Why change our schedule?”

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