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Douglas County board votes unanimously to continue welcoming refugees

Douglas County board votes unanimously to continue welcoming refugees

Add Nebraska’s most populous county to the list of local governments that want to keep receiving refugees.

The Douglas County Board voted unanimously Tuesday to inform the U.S. State Department that the board is OK with refugees from abroad being resettled in the county. That could mean that refugees will continue to be resettled in Omaha, if Gov. Pete Ricketts also gives the green light.

The County Board’s vote was in response to a Trump administration executive order that gives states and localities the authority to stop the resettlement of new refugees. County Board Chair Chris Rodgers will send a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying he consents to the initial refugee resettlement in Omaha.

Under the federal directive released in September, both states and local governments have to give written consent before refugees can be resettled from foreign nations to their jurisdictions.

The exact deadline is unclear, but it is generally believed that governors and local leaders across the country have until Christmas to declare their intentions for accepting future refugees. Ricketts has yet to say whether Nebraska will welcome refugees. His office said Tuesday that he is continuing to review the president’s order.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert has said she will declare that Omaha will remain open to new refugees, and Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird has made the same pledge. The La Vista City Council voted unanimously Dec. 3 to authorize Mayor Doug Kindig to send a consent letter.

There has been much confusion as to what kind of local approvals are required under the order, said Jen Smyers of Church World Service, one of the nation’s largest refugee agencies.

When the Trump directive was first handed down, the U.S. State Department told the refugee agencies that they needed to secure the approval of mayors to meet the local approval requirement. Local agencies secured the approval of dozens of mayors across the country, including Stothert and Gaylor Baird.

But Smyers said the latest guidance from the administration indicates that the approval is required at the county level. That’s required the agencies to pivot from talking to mayors to seeking the support of county leaders.

“The way the State Department has implemented this has made a difficult scene even more difficult,” Smyers said. “It’s been kind of a tortured dance we are trying to figure out.”

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Those approvals are starting to roll in, she said. Douglas County’s adds to about two dozen others nationally. Polk County in Iowa, home to Des Moines, has also granted approval.

In addition, 24 governors have now signed off on their states accepting refugees, with none saying they will not. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is among eight Republican governors who have signed on.

The Sarpy County Board hasn’t addressed the issue. The Lancaster County Board is expected to consider a consent letter Thursday.

The executive order applies only to the initial resettlement of refugees. Once in the U.S., people would be free to move to other places in the nation.

Omaha became home, at least for a time, to the largest South Sudanese refugee population in the nation. The city also has recently received thousands of refugees from Somalia and Myanmar, and smaller numbers from Afghanistan and Syria.

Like other immigrants and refugees going back more than a century in Omaha, they have been attracted in part by jobs in meatpacking plants.

The Douglas County Board left no doubt Tuesday about its feelings about continuing to accept more. It quickly voted 6-0 (four Democrats and two Republicans) to approve the resolution. The board added it to the agenda as an emergency item.

Omaha World-Herald: Afternoon Update

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Chris Burbach covers the Douglas County Board, Planning Board and other local government bodies, as well as local neighborhood issues. Follow him on Twitter @chrisburbach. Phone: 402-444-1057.

Reporter - Metro News

Henry is a general assignment reporter, but his specialty is deep dives into state issues and public policy. He's also into the numbers behind a story, yet to meet a spreadsheet he didn't like. Follow him on Twitter @HenryCordes. Phone: 402-444-1130.

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