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.
Displaying a handful of false IDs and pictures of drugs and guns seized from illegal immigrants, the governor said that continuing to "flagrantly ignore" the situation would erode public support for legal immigration.
"We've winked and nodded at some of these issues," Worthington Police Chief Mike Cumiskey said at the news conference. He added, however, that the biggest impact of illegal immigration is "side issues" such as unlicensed and uninsured drivers and victims unwilling to report crimes.
Despite an influx of immigrants in the last decade, Cumiskey said Worthington's crime rate has not increased. And while the southwest Minnesota city does not bar police from asking people who haven't been arrested about their immigration status -- as do ordinances in Minneapolis and St. Paul that Pawlenty's plan would overrule -- Cumiskey said his officers don't do so.
Another police chief with many immigrants in his jurisdiction, Chaska's Scott Knight, suggested that asking such questions would amount to racial profiling. He denounced the governor's proposal as "the politics of fear" and said immigrants "are causing no more trouble than any other group."
According to a widely disputed study issued by the Pawlenty administration last month, illegal immigrants number 80,000 to 85,000 in Minnesota and cost taxpayers up to $188 million a year. The study did not attempt to measure the economic or tax contributions of undocumented aliens, however.
"Our history is based on immigration," the governor said. "Our future counts on it. The federal government has the bulk of the responsibility for enforcing the immigration laws. But there are some things states can do and should do."