BAXTER - Roughly 200 people turned out to a Baxter church Tuesday to see a speaker critical of refugee resettlement in the United States.
Ron Branstner, a former member of the Minutemen militia in California, staged a presentation on the perils that refugee resettlement and illegal immigration posed at the The Journey North Community Church.
Branstner, who said he aligned with neither political party, equated refugee resettlement to human trafficking. His 2 ½-hour presentation made the case that money flowing between the federal government and nongovernmental organizations maintained a system of modern-day slavery by which refugees and illegal immigrants are exploited, while U.S. taxpayers pick up the tab.
"I have a soft heart for refugees, because I think they're being used, exploited," Branstner said.
He spent a large portion of the speech specifically discussing the dangers allegedly posed by the Islamic faith and how Sharia law would gradually take over local communities and governments. This threat was magnified, he said, by the concentration of refugee and immigrant populations ascribing to the faith who are bound to tenets intended to spread Islam.
Branstner also decried an eclectic list of other organizations, ideas and individuals, including Hillary Clinton, Democrats, socialism, the United Nations, Forum Communications, the Blandin Foundation, the American Red Cross, the popular vote and democracy as opposed to republicanism.
Although there were yawns in the audience and at least one person appeared to doze off, the bulk of the attendees stayed seated for the length of Branstner's presentation. Several attendees appeared to be recording Branstner using their cellphones. A steady stream of people began to leave as Branstner shifted to taking audience questions and comments, however.
Baxter resident and former Brainerd school board candidate Charles Black Lance appeared to challenge Branstner when he asked him and the audience rhetorically whether as Christians their primary concern should be their own welfare and safety, or that of their fellow man.
He later told the Dispatch what went on in the auditorium saddened him.
Most of the audience members who got up to speak appeared to be in line with Branstner.
Among those was former Brainerd mayoral candidate Guy Green, who spoke at length about the idea that Christianity, which calls on its followers to extend a helping hand, shouldn't be the deciding factor when it comes to refugee resettlement. Green said the threat of radical Islam should be the primary concern.
"What we're seeing is a lot of deceit that uses Saul Alinsky's rule of turning our Christianity against us," Green said, referring to a community organizer famous for writing the book, "Rules for Radicals."
In response to Branstner's claims of a negative effect of Somali refugees on the St. Cloud school system, one man asked, "Is that coming here now?"
"You'll never know, until it comes overnight," Branstner responded.
He stated the poverty rate in Brainerd was "already too high" and any refugees who came here would end up on social welfare since entry-level manufacturing jobs aren't as readily available.
"You've got to use them for slave labor at some time," Branstner said, speaking of the government's intentions with refugees.
Branstner was invited to speak by Brainerd resident Bill Dian. An empty KFC bucket was passed around during the talk for donations to help defray Dian's costs of renting the auditorium from the church and other expenses.
However, when asked about how much people had donated, Dian said the amount coming in was "terrible, terrible" and totaled $250-not enough to cover his costs.
He later said hosting the event was still worth it, however.
In a voicemail left Sunday in response to a request for comment, Pastor Mark Bjorlo of Journey North clarified the church's role in the presentation.
"We're not hosting the event, we just rented the facility to someone who is bringing him in as a speaker," Bjorlo said. "Also, we are not endorsing him. I don't even know what he's talking about."
After the presentation, Bjorlo said he felt the thesis of Branstner's presentation was a good conversation for the community to engage in, no matter where personal beliefs landed. He reiterated the space is available to those with a variety of views and noted U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., spoke at the building just a few weeks earlier.
Tom Whiteside, a staffer with Nolan's office in Brainerd, attended Tuesday's talk, but said he was not there in an official capacity.
Minnesota Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, also attended the talk but said he was still processing the information when asked his reaction.
Mary Koep, member of the Brainerd City Council, said before the talk began she came because the entire city council had been invited by Dian, and she wanted to listen.
"I don't really have a clue what to expect," she said of the presentation. "I'm hoping it's not just a rant. But, I'm here because Bill (Dian) wanted us to come, and what do you lose by learning?"
Refugees in Brainerd?
Whether any refugees will be resettled in the Brainerd lakes area in the near future appears unlikely, according to those who work in refugee resettlement.
Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota is one of six agencies in the state that resettles refugees and houses an office in Brainerd. Jacqueline Nelson, senior marketing and communications manager with the organization, said LSS does not resettle any refugees in Brainerd or surrounding areas, only in the Twin Cities and St. Cloud.
Spokespeople with three other resettlement agencies-Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Winona, the Minnesota Council of Churches and Arrive Ministries-all echoed LSS's assertion of the unlikelihood of resettlement in the Brainerd area.
"Good resettlement is where they (refugees) have people who are going to come alongside them, walk the path ahead of them, maybe a family member that's been here three or five years or maybe longer than that," said Bob Oehrig, executive director of Arrive Ministries. "We want to put people where they're going to get support from the community."
For resettlement agencies to even resettle refugees beyond a 50-mile radius of offices, an exception must be approved by the U.S. State Department and the state of Minnesota, Oehrig said, and is typically only done if a refugee has family members already living in an area. Agencies also seek to ensure services like language translation, English as second language support, entry-level employment, affordable housing and other amenities likely to ensure successful resettlement are available in communities, said Kristine Friesen, director of refugee services at the Minnesota Council of Churches.
Of all refugees in the world, Friesen said half of 1 percent are ever resettled in a third country, which is the situation with those resettled in the United States. Friesen said the largest refugee group resettling in Minnesota currently is the Burmese Karen population, which is "by and large a Christian population." Refugees from Syria, on the other hand, are not among those expected to land in Minnesota.
"Minnesota is not likely to see many Syrian refugees, as there is almost no Syrian-American community in Minnesota, just as there was almost no Central American community in Minnesota to support the unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America and crossing the U.S./Mexico border last year," an LSS fact sheet stated. "The Syrian refugees who will come to the U.S. will come from those waiting today in urban centers and refugee camps in the Middle East, not from among the people streaming into Europe seeking asylum there."
In September, a presentation Branstner did at the VFW Granite Post 428 in St. Cloud prompted an article from the St. Cloud Times, fact-checking what he said.
"The St. Cloud Times checked some of Branstner's statements with officials knowledgeable about refugee programs and found that several statements lacked veracity," the article stated.
Branstner had planned to speak at the VFW in August, but the event was canceled after locals said they planned to protest, the Times reported.
Branstner said in his phone interview with the Dispatch last week he tries to keep his own thoughts on the subject out of his presentations.
"We don't speak hyperboles," he said. "This isn't about me, this isn't about a personal agenda. This is really just fact-finding."