Opponents and proponents of refugee resettlement clashed during what was an electric meeting Thursday night at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet.
Opponents filled the 130-seat auditorium at the college while proponents lined the walls, live-streaming on their smartphones and clashing with the audience there to see a speaker sponsored by the Carlton County GOP, Ron Branstner of Eden Valley, Minnesota.
Cloquet City Councilor Lara Wilkinson arrived early in the evening as proponents of refugee resettlement were being blocked at the entryway by members of the audience. Her arrival defused what was an escalating situation.
"I'd like to bring my friends with," she said, waving in proponents, including a masked man wearing a bandanna who called himself Marcus Mitchell. Wilkinson's gesture seemed to open dialogue that had reached a fever pitch early, with Mitchell's facial bandanna being stripped from his face by an audience member who declined to give his name.
None of the audience members who were asked for comment would give their name to the News Tribune.
Branstner and the meeting's organizer Bill Dian, of Wrenshall, appealed to the crowd multiple times to allow proponents to remain in the meeting.
"I want you to be here, but you have to show some respect," Branstner said, even taking questions from proponents later in the evening.
Two officers from the Cloquet Police Department arrived to keep the peace and did so as the verbal sparring flared, fell and flared again.
Following the presentation by Branstner, Cheryl Podgornik, of Proctor, took the microphone to challenge the facts of the presentation.
"I believe in a country that welcomes refugees," she said, describing herself as a former assistant hospital supervisor who was surrounded by doctors and professionals who'd come as refugees. "Half of what you're saying is false."
"We want legal refugees," one woman from the crowd shouted to Podgornik, who retorted, "Refugees are legal by definition."
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, refugees are people "who have been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence." More than 70 million people were forcibly displaced in 2019, according to UN data. Under the Trump administration, the United States will only accept as many as 18,000 refugees in 2020.
The fact that the refugee meeting was being held at the college, and reserved using the Carlton County GOP's insurance, was a sticking point for proponents, who made up a small portion of the crowd.
"Honestly, it's an insult for this to happen at a tribal college," the masked Mitchell said.
The meeting, which began with the Pledge of Allegiance, emerged peacefully after two hours of dialogue and rhetoric coursing back and forth between the parties. The audience featured St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson and Jeff Dotseth, a Republican candidate for Minnesota House District 11A who is challenging incumbent Democrat Mike Sundin. Both Nelson and Dotseth said they wanted to be further informed on the issue. Nelson left after the first of two hours.
"I try to listen to all sides," said the 6th District St. Louis County commissioner from Eveleth. "I have 29,000 people in my district, and they don't all think the same."
College President Stephanie Hammitt sent out an email to faculty and staff before the meeting, saying she'd discussed the meeting with the state college system's Office of General Counsel, advice she said that is often sought in facility requests.
"This case is like any group wanting to use a public facility and followed the same contract and fees process," she wrote in the email, shared with the News Tribune. "The group's use of the facility is simply that; the college is not endorsing the group's actions or the actions of any third party use of the facility."
The meeting and others like it conducted by the speaker have taken on added immediacy in recent months, following President Donald Trump’s executive order in September requiring states and counties to consent to refugee resettlement in writing by June 1.
At least 25 counties in Minnesota have voted on the issue, despite only roughly half of them having resettled any refugees in the last decade, according to the Association of Minnesota Counties. Notably, Beltrami County rejected giving its consent. St. Louis County is scheduled to vote on the issue at its May 26 meeting.
"St. Cloud is under siege from the refugee resettlement program," Branstner told the audience.
The Carlton County Board has yet to take up the issue of refugee resettlement consent.
Trump’s opt-in order was blocked by a federal judge in Maryland in January. The Trump administration has not yet appealed the decision and it’s not clear if it will.
Following the meeting, one of the audience members shook the hand of activist and noted water protector Jim Northrup III of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Northrup had live-streamed much of the night's proceedings, and drew the ire of several audience members for doing so. But not this individual.
"Jim, it's nice to see you again," the man said. "It's been a long time."
The man declined to give his name.