The governor urged broad state and local efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, which is likely to be an issue in this year's campaigns.
Declaring that unchecked illegal immigration is undermining the entire legal system, Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed a sweeping array of state responses on Tuesday, including a Minnesota enforcement team, more screening by local authorities, and increased penalties for false identification, human trafficking and hiring of illegal immigrants.
"We have benefited immensely from immigration," the governor said at his State Capitol office before flying off to present his proposals in several outstate cities with significant immigrant populations. "But it needs to be legal and reasonable and orderly."
Pawlenty's seven-point plan would require approval by the Legislature. It is expected to be a key point of contention when the 2006 session convenes March 1 and throughout a major election year when Pawlenty and all 201 legislative seats will be before the voters.
Pawlenty suggested Tuesday that polling by his campaign had confirmed what he said is obvious to anyone in Minnesota who isn't "living under a rock" -- that illegal immigration is a serious issue for much of the public. He added, however, that neither the governor's office nor the campaign had run polls on his specific proposals.
Others, however, disputed the depth of public concern over immigration and branded the initiative part of a poll-driven nationwide Republican election strategy.
"Evidently the governor and the White House are planning on using wedge issues again," DFL state chair Brian Melendez said in a news release. "Last cycle, it was gay marriage. This year, it's immigration. You can campaign on these issues, but you can't govern on them."
Melendez added that "immigration is worthy of discussion" but noted that a recent St. Cloud State University survey did not include it among the 28 issues most important to Minnesotans. As recently as last August, the GOP-controlled Minnesota House asked no questions on immigration in its annual poll of State Fair visitors.
Instead of immigration, Melendez said DFLers will emphasize core issues of education, health care, jobs, transportation, energy and the environment, a statement echoed by both Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, and Sen. Becky Lourey, a candidate for governor.
"People are sick of this kind of electioneering," Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said in a news release.
Doran sets immigration tour
At the same time, however, another DFL gubernatorial hopeful, Kelly Doran, announced that he will spend much of next week visiting businesses, schools and social agencies on immigrant-heavy Lake Street in Minneapolis. The tour "will stress uniting, not dividing, to move Minnesota forward," he said in a news release.
Johnson said that the Senate will give Pawlenty's proposals "appropriate deliberation" and that some of them will gain bipartisan support.
"I know, politically, that it [the illegal immigration issue] polls very, very well," Johnson said, adding that "I would encourage the governor and legislators to approach this debate from a positive and constructive standpoint."
He noted that many Minnesota businesses depend on immigrant workers. If the workers are undocumented, he added, the focus should be on helping them to gain legal status. "All people, not just the Norwegians and the Polish, deserve a shot at the American dream," he said.
Pawlenty's plan would greatly step up state involvement in what has been mostly a federal arena. A key element would be to request authorization for a 10-person team of state agents to enforce federal immigration laws, which the U.S. attorney general has granted to Alabama and Florida.
Several state and local law enforcement officials at the governor's announcement emphasized the exploitation that plagues undocumented immigrants fearful of deportation. Others pointed to problems that could affect the broader public, such as widespread tuberculosis among illegal immigrants in county jails.
Crime, but how much?
Pawlenty stressed crime and fraud that has been linked to illegal immigrants, although he said it's hard to gauge its extent because "unless you do something really serious, nobody asks" about a suspect's immigration status.