A firebrand commissioner in Fargo wondered out loud during a council meeting last September how much money North Dakota’s largest city was spending on its decades-old refugee resettlement program, comments he has since backed up with speculation linking immigration to crime.
Dave Piepkorn’s words have resonated for some, especially during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign when the Republican candidate promised to build a wall along America’s border with Mexico. But Piepkorn’s comments have also struck fear into Fargo’s diverse immigrant community, already concerned that the administration’s focus on blocking and deporting more refugees could tear families apart.
"Fargo is a welcoming city and Dave Piepkorn is not supporting diversity," said Abdiwali Sharif, a Somali refugee and an organizer of a drive to recall the commissioner.
Piepkorn, 56 and a lifelong Fargo resident, has vowed to uncover "every penny" spent on resettlement, which he suspects is costing Fargo millions of dollars and he describes as an unfunded federal mandate. He says North Dakota should sue the government to reimburse resettlement costs.
"It’s a lot of money going to a nonprofit. That troubles me," Piepkorn said.
Tax records show that Lutheran Social Services, which manages the program, received more than $11 million in federal grants in 2015, of which nearly $3.9 million went to refugee resettlement. But the group’s records indicate the only money it received directly from the city relating to refugees was $500 to support an annual conference.
Shirley Dykshoorn, a vice president for the group, said the program’s funding is no secret and that she "would love to have any elected officials from the city, county or state come to our office for a question and answer exchange."
Fargo’s Human Relations Commission is investigating the cost of the program at the request of the City Commission. While it’s difficult to calculate the costs, the Human Relations Commission highlighted a National Academies of Science report in 2016 showing that on average, first-generation immigrants in North Dakota are cost-positive by $3,250 per individual.
North Dakota’s resettlement program began in 1946, when the Lutheran Welfare Society — which became Lutheran Social Services — began accepting mostly Protestants fleeing Nazi Germany. The group has resettled an average of 450 refugees a year in the past decade, about 70 percent of whom wind up in Cass County, mostly in Fargo.
Adnan Al Mashhadani, who arrived four months ago from Iraq with his wife and three children, said through an interpreter that he loves living in Fargo. He answered in English when asked whether he was sad to leave Iraq.
"No. Very happy. Very happy," he said. He said he hasn’t heard of Piepkorn.
Local factories and Sanford Health, Fargo’s largest hospital, have hundreds of refugees on their payrolls and several immigrants have started their own companies, including Ned Halilovic, a Bosnian refugee who runs a cleaning service and last year became the first Muslim president of the Fargo Kiwanis Club.
Piepkorn owns a lawn care franchise with 17 fulltime employees, none of whom are refugees. He says the refugees’ impact on the community is an important story, but not his to tell.
"That’s not my job. My job is to see where we’re spending money," he said.
Piepkorn also wants to know whether refugees are responsible for more crime than other citizens.
This question prompted the Human Relations Commission to issue a statement in January titled: "Crime Rates Not Higher in Refugee Populations." The release quoted Fargo police saying the department has no hard numbers because immigration status is not routinely collected when someone enters the criminal justice system. The statement included only anecdotal information from the department’s cultural liaison officer.
Piepkorn reveled in the report’s apparent contradiction.
"That was fake news," he declared. "The release said there were statistics and there weren’t any statistics."
Piepkorn’s detractors are quick to point to the commissioner’s own flubs with numbers. He said on a Fargo radio show that the Lutheran Social Services chief executive earns $350,000, which is more than double the true salary, and that the group spent $15 million on a new building when the facility cost about $5 million.
First elected in 2008, Piepkorn was voted out in 2012 then restored to the commission in 2016. He appears unfazed by the recall effort, saying if he loses he will simply run again. He has declined to respond to rumors of mayoral aspirations.
Piepkorn believes Lutheran Social Services is the driving force behind the recall effort, but Dykshoorn denies the organization is involved.
Supporters must gather 3,500 signatures by May 12. Andrew Lenzmeier, 26, a restaurant manager and the chairman of the recall committee, said volunteers have received a "warm reception" from residents. The effort kicked off with nuns signing the petition.
Piepkorn says a poll published in the Fargo Forum indicates a majority of residents approve of his efforts, and he believes he has the support of other political leaders, but declined to say who.
"I will get support not just from the region. I will get support from all around the country," Piepkorn said.
State Democratic Sen. Tim Mathern, of Fargo, said he has no problem with Piepkorn asking about costs, but that he should also consider the long-term benefits of resettlement such as labor force growth, which boosts Fargo’s economy.
"If his motivations are more sinister, then no data will make a difference," Mathern said.
Dykshorn said the U.S. has a long tradition of making people escaping horror and hardship feel welcome — and that should endure in Fargo.
"Your and my ancestors were immigrants," she said. "We can learn a lot by giving back, a hand up and a warm welcome."