How sore a subject has immigration become in this country? Sore enough to be felt in the race for governor in a state that’s almost as far from the nation’s southern border as one can get.
Maybe that pain isn’t all bad. One might claim that it’s a sign of growing awareness among Minnesotans that current U.S. immigration policy does not serve their interests and badly needs an overhaul.
But it’s also springing from gubernatorial candidates’ willingness to gain attention by seizing upon the most emotion-laden issue of the day and using it as a club with which to whack the opposition.
That’s a standard campaign tactic. In this case, it’s also an unfortunate one.
Minnesota could use a little less heat and a lot more Minnesota-specific light on immigration right now. In this state, immigration isn’t a problem. It’s a solution. Increasing the flow of human capital into Minnesota from other lands can be key to easing one of the biggest problems this state faces in the next decade — a shortage of skilled labor. The next governor will have a harder time taking advantage of that tool if this year’s campaign makes it too hot to touch.
Make no mistake: I was glad to hear Minnesota politicians in both parties voice outrage at federally inflicted cruelty toward parents and children seeking this nation’s refuge. Those who spoke out deserve credit for forcing a reversal in presidential policy. Those who didn’t missed an opportunity to show some spine.
It was fitting that in the run-up to President Donald Trump’s visit to Duluth on Wednesday — before he changed his mind about how to treat families illegally crossing the border — Minnesota politicians were pressed to say whether they condone the forcible separation of children from their parents.
It was fair game for U.S. Rep. and DFL gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz to put that question to former Republican governor and comeback-seeker Tim Pawlenty in a series of news releases. Pawlenty, after all, took several immigration shots at Walz in May. He called “nutty” Walz’s support for making Minnesota a “sanctuary state,” limiting local law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities in order to spare people who have not committed serious crimes from deportation and, Walz argues, to make communities safer.
The DFL’s party-endorsed candidate for governor, Erin Murphy, holds the same position. The DFL newcomer to the race, Lori Swanson, says she’s for letting cities choose to adopt sanctuary policies. But Murphy and Swanson haven’t (yet) been called out by the ex-governor’s very well-oiled campaign machine.
If Pawlenty answered Walz’s question about Trump’s family detention policies, Google couldn’t find it for me. It did detect that the former governor praised Trump on Twitter Wednesday for “bold leadership.” Was Trump bold before or after he flip-flopped on ripping babies out of nursing mothers’ arms? Is it bold to ship children far from their parents with no evident plan to reunite them?
When Pawlenty’s GOP rival Jeff Johnson was asked about Trump’s family-separation policy by Cathy Wurzer at MPR, the two-time party gubernatorial endorsee demonstrated mastery of the rhetorical art of having it both ways.
Splitting children from their parents is “terrible,” Johnson said. “But I do actually support what [Trump is] trying to do with respect to immigration right now,” he added, leaving listeners to guess where he’d put the line between supportable and terrible immigration policy.
I noted that Johnson has had no trouble being definitive about another policy that Minnesotans know well — refugee resettlement. If he’s elected, he said at the GOP state convention on June 2, “until we tell them otherwise, Minnesota’s participation in the refugee resettlement program is going to stop, period.” That would be an identity-changing move for a state that has prided itself on being a place of welcome for the displaced since the end of World War II.
The emotion that’s been Trump-pumped into the immigration issue guarantees that it will remain a talker this year. But if the talk in the governor’s race does not soon include discussion of immigration’s potential for meeting Minnesota’s workforce needs, an important opportunity will be lost.
That’s the take I heard last week from Bill Blazar, a senior vice president at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. He’s one of this state’s leading voices for economically smart immigration reform — the kind that can help fill the estimated 200,000 jobs that he says are forecast to go unfilled in Minnesota by 2022 unless employers find new talent pools to tap.
“The lack of enough talent is an enormous issue for Minnesota businesses right now,” Blazar said. “One of the sources of talent that an increasing number of businesses depend on is immigrant workers. That’s true at every skill level.”
Blazar has given himself a tough assignment. He spends considerable time in Minnesota’s Trump country, meeting with employers and sharing research findings that they aren’t hearing from their president: Immigrants are a plus for the Minnesota economy. And this state needs more of them.
Without immigration in the last decade, he explains, the state would have seen a net out-migration of working-age people. It would have fewer entrepreneurs, in a state whose economic success to date has been uncommonly dependent on homegrown businesses. The state would be without immigrants’ $5 billion in annual consumer spending and state and local tax revenue pegged at $800 million a year, according to a 2013 study.
“If you’re going to be the leader of this state, you have to be concerned about the role of immigrants in the economy,” Blazar said. He’d advise candidates for governor to start now to “champion bringing our immigration system into the 21st century, to better align with how the economy is changing and growing.”
If a candidate does not do that now, I’d add, he or she will have a harder time succeeding as governor.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.