Minnesota evangelicals, business leaders press for immigration reform

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 22, 2013 - 11:53 PM

Evangelicals and business leaders say a policy that includes tighter borders and a path to citizenship will benefit the GOP.

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John Kline and Michele Bachmann, shown in 2012, are two of the four Minnesotans in Congress being lobbied.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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– Two traditional pillars of Minnesota’s Republican base, evangelicals and business leaders, are launching campaigns to push the state’s conservative members of Congress to back more liberal immigration laws.

The efforts call for creating a path to citizenship for most of the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, an issue that has long divided Democrats and Republicans. But as President Obama ramps up his push to revise immigration laws, Republican support would be needed to pass any significant legislation in the GOP-led U.S. House.

The fate of those reforms could be determined by Minnesota’s economic and evangelical coalitions and similar efforts around the country that aim to persuade congressional Republicans that change is in the best interest of the GOP and their constituents.

“If you hold a Bible … or own a business, you want a sensible solution to immigration reform,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Immigration Forum. “This is the base of a Republican member of Congress.”

In Minnesota, the groups will focus their most intense lobbying on four members: Republican U.S. Reps. John Kline, Michele Bachmann and Erik Paulsen, and Rep. Collin Peterson, a fiscally conservative Democrat. None responded to interview requests for this story.

The evangelical push on immigration reform is rooted in principle, not politics, Minnesota evangelical leaders say.

“From a biblical perspective, immigration reform and enforcement needs to be done in a humane way,” said Carl Nelson, president and CEO of Transform Minnesota.

Transform, a regional network of more than 175 churches, and the Minneapolis-based Evangelical Free Church of America, an organization of more than 1,000 churches, have joined a national immigration-reform movement, the Evangelical Immigration Table.

As part of their “I Was a Stranger” campaign, the group is encouraging congregations to read and discuss biblical passages about how to treat immigrants. After the November election, the group sent letters to congressional leaders, reinforcing calls for reform.

Evangelicals make up a sizable slice of Minnesota’s electorate that may be tough for politicians to ignore. According to a 2010 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey, 21 percent of Minnesotans identify themselves as evangelicals.

High stakes for business

The state Chamber of Commerce has favored immigration reform for much of the past decade, but the organization has stepped up its efforts to build public support, said Bill Blazar, its senior vice president for public affairs.

Officials have begun meeting with legislators, conveying the message that businesses, from the agricultural and service industries to manufacturing and high-tech, will benefit from laws that make it easier for non-Americans to obtain work visas. The group has reached out to Democrats too, pledging to support a bill introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., that would boost the number of employment visas available to highly skilled foreign workers.

“People have realized how high the stakes are,” Klobuchar said.

In its most recent jobs survey, the state Department of Employment and Economic Development found that Minnesota employers had more than 63,000 unfilled openings last year. Nearly half required some postsecondary education or training.

Klobuchar’s legislation has drawn criticism from employers and trade groups, who argue that opening the door to more non-Americans could siphon away jobs from Minnesota and its workers. Supporters say immigration reform will help companies fill jobs needed to sustain the state’s economic strength.

Blazar said that, unlike the evangelicals, the chamber’s efforts are focused almost exclusively on “the development and growth of the state’s economy.”

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