County approves consent letter for Bethany Christian Services

Rare executive committee vote to allow service to continue work with refugees in county

CENTREVILLE — In a rare roll call vote during Wednesday’s Executive Committee meeting of the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners, commissioners approved a consent letter for Bethany Christian Services to continue their work with unaccompanied youth refugees in the county.

With the consent letter approved, it will give permission for Bethany to place a refugee foster child with an already-licensed family in the county. The vote was 3-2, with Third District Commissioner and Board Chair Dennis Allen, Second District Commissioner and Board Vice Chair Kathy Pangle, and Fourth District Commissioner Dan Czajkowski voting in favor of approval. First District Commissioner Allen Balog and Fifth District Commissioner Ken Malone voted against approval.

As previously reported by the Commercial-News, Bethany Christian Services requested a letter of consent from commissioners because of the terms of an executive order signed by President Donald Trump back in September. According to the terms of Executive Order 13888, which deals with local and state government’s involvement in refugee resettlement, refugees from other countries would not be permitted to resettle in a state or locality unless written consent is provided by the governor and a local official, which was clarified to mean county government.

The rare vote was taken due to the time frame the board had to approve the letter. The first discussion of the issue happened during Tuesday, Jan. 7’s regular meeting, where Bethany’s Program Manager, Jane Trejo, said circumstances out of their control precluded them from initially presenting it until that meeting. County Administrator Teresa Doehring said during Wednesday’s meeting that Bethany received a short extension — which would have ended at the end of Wednesday — to turn in consent letters to their parent agency, with St. Joseph County being one of the final counties to have not made decisions as of Wednesday. The original deadline for Bethany was Friday, Jan. 10.

“This is one of those things where, if we don’t act today, the message there is we would not be consenting,” Doehring said.

There was some debate near the end of a near-40 minute discussion of the letter about whether they could actually vote during the Executive Committee meeting.

“I did check with Lindsay [Oswald] and I checked with her attorney as well,” Doehring said. “I knew that we would like to just make a move and be done with this and move on. So we can today vote.“

“I don’t think we can vote in this meeting,” Balog interjected.

After further discussion unrelated to voting, Doehring continued her explanation of why they could vote during the committee meeting.

“We can vote at this meeting, it’s a public meeting, we have a quorum, it was posted,” Doehring said. “It’s not our typical pack, but it is okay to do it this way.”

During the previous regular meeting, commissioners asked to receive clarification on two aspects of the letter: whether or not the commissioners could place restrictions on how many refugees the county would allow, and whether or not they could opt-out after the first year. Doehring told commissioners the answers she received from the Michigan’s refugee coordinator were that they can put restrictions on that number — she was told it was a “moot point,” however — and they can opt-out year-to-year, and will be up for renewal next year.

However, in contrast to the answer Doehring received on restrictions, Balog recounted a conversation he had in the last week with a representative from the United States Department of State. The person Balog talked to said restrictions could not be put in place on the number of refugees a county could allow. In addition, the representative told Balog the executive order does not just pertain to children.

“This means you’re opening it up for adult refugees as well, which adult refugees wouldn’t go through Bethany Services, but you would open it up,” Balog said, adding that St. Joseph County’s involvement would be released by the State Department. “My question is, do we want it put out there that St. Joseph County is open to refugees?”

Balog then referenced the mass shooting incident that occurred at a United States Navy base in Pensacola, Fla., which killed three people and was perpetrated by a Saudi national who was participating in a military training program. Multiple reports showed the perpetrator was motivated to do the attack by “jihadist ideology,” and on Sunday, the incident was called an act of terrorism by Attorney General William Barr, along with announcing the expulsion of 21 Saudi trainees in the military program.

Balog mentioned this incident in relation to the vetting process refugees have to go through — which include interviews by nine different governmental agencies — to enter the country.

“Wouldn’t you think the vetting process [for the military] would be second-to-none, but yet these 20, 21 people made it here?” Balog said. “The only reason why I’m drawing this parallel is we’ve put a lot of emphasis on vetting. I think that’s a good demonstration that vetting doesn’t accomplish what they want to accomplish.”

Allen commented that if the military vetted the 21 nationals that came over, and they didn’t find out the information that eventually came out, “they didn’t do a good job of vetting.” Doehring said, talking about the adult side of the issue, St. Joseph County “isn’t the place these folks want to typically reside.”

“The service organizations that they work with aren’t located here. The areas to which she referred to as their culture aren’t located here,” Doehring said. She added there are no significant plans to bring a significant number of refugees to St. Joseph County.

Pangle asked if Bethany handles adult refugees as well as unaccompanied minors, and Allen and Balog said just primarily children. Doehring said from her conversation with the state refugee coordinator, there would be more involved if there were adult refugees coming to the area.

“If we were going to use St. Joseph County as a place to resettle a significant amount of adult refugees, there would be a plan in place, larger discussions, information provided,” Doehring said. “They don’t just plop these folks in an area unless they make sure it’s a benefit to them and a benefit to us.”

Balog re-iterated his concern about potentially making public that the county would accept refugees, equating it to telling people that St. Joseph County is a “sanctuary county.”

“In my mind, what we would be approving is ‘St. Joseph County is a sanctuary county for any and all refugees that go through the process of coming to America,’” Balog said. “Is that what we want to be known for?”

Czajkowski said it is “interesting” the topic of refugees is being talked about at the county level. Allen said while the big topic is illegal immigration, that issue was not what the consent letter is about.

“We’re talking about people that have been vetted or in horrible situations and have been driven out of their own countries and looking for a safe haven, a place where they can come to and take care of their needs. I understand what Al’s saying, but being that it’s an annual thing, where we can opt in and opt out, I agree,” Allen said. “Where’s the sensitivity and compassion? We’re supposed to show compassion to the people in need. And, yeah, we have plenty of our own, but along with this comes federal funding. We’re not paying for it. If there’s a family out there willing to open doors for them, I’m okay with that.”

Allen added there will be a review after the first year.

“We’ll revisit it sometime next year, and if we suddenly find out we have 100 refugees, and we’re unhappy, I guess we opt out,” Allen said. “We’re having a discussion over maybe one or two children, and as leaders of the government, we need to participate in this.”

After the vote was taken, Czajkowski appreciated the debate that occurred.

“There were differing opinions here, and I appreciate the difference of opinion,” Czajkowski said. “We could, by voting for this, be proven wrong in a year or two. I’m taking a chance at this, too. The fact that I got the opportunity to opt out after a year makes me more comfortable. Even if you help out one child, it’s worth the gamble.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@ threeriversnews.com.

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