When the 2008 Legislature adjourned last week, one order of business was noticeably absent from its list of accomplishments -- an immigration crackdown.
Tougher penalties for identity theft. A ban on so-called "sanctuary cities." New penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants. They were among proposals declared a priority by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in January, and all went nowhere.
"We had time to debate whether dogs should be allowed to eat in cafes. We had time to debate hockey as the state sport. But we didn't have time to stop identity theft or human trafficking," said an irritated House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall.
"This is one of the greatest disappointments of the session."
But House and Senate leadership, which did not give the bills public hearings, said the session was short and packed with more pressing matters. Plus, the governor never really went to bat for the bills, they said.
"I found that property taxes, lack of investment in transportation and in education were the big issues affecting Minnesotans' lives," said Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis. "My impression is the immigration issue is one that [Pawlenty] dusts off for his national aspirations. I don't have people calling me, asking me to do something about illegal immigrants."
Pawlenty's office, however, says the issue is very real.
"If you need evidence that illegal immigration is a real problem in Minnesota, you need to go no further than the recent arrest of 15 illegal immigrants in a van in Lakeville," said Brian McClung, spokesman for the governor. "It's time that DFLers stop ignoring this problem and work with us to address it head on."
The governor's proposals, laid out during a high-profile news conference in January, included establishing a crime of "aggravated forgery" for people who create fake IDs for illegal immigrants and strengthening human trafficking laws. They also would have prevented cities such as Minneapolis and St. Paul from enacting so-called "sanctuary" ordinances that bar police officers from asking questions about immigration status during routine police work.
"I thought the ID theft [legislation] would be an easy thing to come together on after the Cottonwood bus crash," said Seifert, referring to an accident in which four children were killed after their school bus was struck by a van allegedly driven by an illegal immigrant.
"This gal [the alleged driver of the van] initially misidentified herself to police and had false documentation," he said.
But new laws involve court costs and corrections costs, said Sen. Mee Moua, chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She said the Legislature needed more time to examine the proposals and their potential impact. In addition, immigration law is overwhelmingly a federal issue, she said, and the federal role needs to be factored in.
"The session was short; the deadlines were short," Moua said.
Amendments fail to catch on
Without committee hearings, legislators supporting an immigration crackdown resorted to attaching amendments to existing bills.
An amendment to the Senate's omnibus tax bill, for example, would have barred so-called sanctuary cities from getting Local Government Aid. An amendment to a veterinarian licensing bill would have the license expiration dates for foreign veterinarians match their visa expiration date. Both amendments failed, as did a proposal to make English the official language of Minnesota.
If Pawlenty were serious about cracking down on immigration, his supporters wouldn't have had to resort to this, said Javier Morillo, president of Service Employees International Union Local 26.
"What the governor made as his priority -- whether it be a new state park in northern Minnesota or the Central Corridor -- happened," Morillo said.
New rules for employers
The most significant change in immigration policy this year resulted not from legislative action but from an executive order by Pawlenty. It requires thousands of Minnesota contractors and subcontractors to verify the legal status of their employees through a controversial federal electronic verification system.
The move is being closely watched by employers, immigration advocates and lawyers: The use of E-Verify has faced legal challenges in other states. Similarly, the Minnesota Legislative Auditor will be monitoring E-Verify for its accuracy and its impact on businesses.
Another development was the creation of an immigration caucus, which intends to hold public meetings around the state sometime this summer, said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria. Likewise, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold summer hearings on issues such as human trafficking, Moua said.
The hearings signal that the contentious issues of immigration will be back next session. Said Seifert: "We're not going away."
Jean Hopfensperger • 651-298-1553