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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commissioners vote to allow refugee settlement in Spokane County

Supporters of World Relief hold welcome signs for the relatives of African immigrants at Spokane International Airport on Jan. 19, 2018. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County Commissioners found themselves in a position Tuesday none of their predecessors had faced before: deciding whether refugees should be allowed to settle in their community.

The requirement came as a surprise to county leaders, who normally have no involvement in refugee settlement. That authority was granted through an executive order President Donald Trump announced in September. It came at the same time he capped the number of refugees allowed in the country at a historic low of 18,000.

After asking questions about whether refugees can take public assistance, why the president would sign such an executive order and if refugees might overburden an already tight housing market, Commissioners Mary Kuney, Josh Kerns and Al French unanimously voted to consent to refugee resettlement in Spokane County.

Though he supports allowing immigrants to settle in Spokane County if they entered the country legally, French said he would prefer not to have the authority to make that decision in the first place.

“I don’t want to take on activities that are the responsibility of the state or federal government,” he said. “Immigration and refugees are not in the wheelhouse of a county commissioner.”

Kuney agreed, saying commissioners had never made a decision on a subject like immigration policy.

Commissioners expressed confusion about why they had the authority to weigh in on immigration and what the consequences of a vote might be. French said he believed World Relief could have lost federal funding if the county didn’t vote on the measure.

While answering commissioners questions during the meeting Tuesday, World Relief Executive Director Mark Finney said he believes the rhetoric around immigration and refugees likely led to the executive order.

“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of research or data that would support any sort of additional skepticism about refugees,” he told commissioners. “The only thing that seems to line up – and, again, I hope this doesn’t sound partisan – it just sounds an awful like the rhetoric we’ve been hearing in this presidential campaign.”

Finney said the deadline and requirements under the order had been a moving target. Under the initial executive order, local governments had 90 days to give their consent, and Finney initially believed it was cities who made the decision. The White House later clarified the order.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has already consented to refugees settling in the state as part of the process initiated by the executive order.

Finney said the vast majority of local governments across the country have not made a decision on whether to allow refugees but that the governments that have taken action have voted to allow refugees.

World Relief has been settling hundreds of refugees in the Spokane area for decades, but recent immigration policies have limited how many are allowed to enter the United States. Between October of last year and September of this year, the federal government’s fiscal year, the organization resettled 158 refugees.

As a part of resettling refugees, World Relief helps immigrants find housing, learn English and connect with jobs. Finney said the organization also works with several employers that specifically hire refugees. Recently, there have not been enough people in the program to fill those positions.

“They want to work hard, they want to live the American dream,” he said.