Mahamoud Ibrahim stewed about Donald Trump as he packed for a three-week U.S. Army Reserve training. In a Thursday speech, the Republican presidential candidate suggested that Somali refugees have turned Minnesota into a hotbed for terror recruitment and frayed its social safety net.
Trump’s swipe dominated discussion after Friday prayer at Ibrahim’s mosque in Burnsville.
“I never thought he’d go there and blatantly call Somali Americans a danger,” said Ibrahim, an Inver Hills Community College student who enlisted in 2014. “It hurts listening to that.”
For the state’s Somali community, Trump’s remarks inspired outrage, renewed calls to vote in November and plans to respond during the candidate’s planned visit to the state Aug. 19. Public officials, including Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, fired back on social media. For organizers of events questioning refugee resettlement that have drawn growing crowds in outstate Minnesota this year, the speech offered welcome validation.
The remarks were not a departure for Trump, who has previously called for temporarily halting Muslim immigration and the resettlement of refugees from countries that have grappled with homegrown terrorism.
But they were the first time he has singled out local refugee groups, in Maine and Minnesota.
Quoting a 2015 Washington Times article, Trump said Minnesota’s Somali refugees have high unemployment rates and represent “a rich pool of potential recruiting targets for Islamist terror groups.”
“The state is having tremendous problems,” he said.
Trump appeared to be alluding to the recent convictions of nine young Somali-Americans in what the FBI described as a plot to leave the country and join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Syria.
Authorities also charged a 10th man of Somali descent, believed to be among a small group of locals who left to fight in Syria, not all of them of East African origin.
‘This community is thriving’
Some community leaders said Trump was using the cases to generalize about a community some estimate at more than 70,000. Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Minnesota, said local Somali-Americans actively worked to stop an earlier wave of departures to join the terror group Al-Shabab, which claimed an estimated two dozen people from the state.
“Donald Trump’s message has always been about using isolated incidents and terrorist attacks across the world to push his politics of fear,” Hussein said. “This community is thriving, and his remarks are really unfair.”
He called on Republican elected officials in Minnesota to repudiate Trump’s comments.
Hussein and others also took exception to Trump’s comments about Somali refugees’ effect on the local economy. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., called them “nonsense” and challenged Trump to a conversation about Minnesota Somalis, whom he described as a “welcoming, thriving community” on Twitter.
In response to an interview request, Department of Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper noted the state has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.
“In our state, we celebrate our diversity and we view our Somali community as an asset to Minnesota,” Piper’s statement said.
Hodges was blunt in a tweet: “Donald Trump, do not go after Minnesota and our Somali population. Just don’t.”
Amid a growing number of arrivals from other states, Minnesota has seen an increase in Somali food and cash assistance participation since 2010.
A recent report comparing various groups in the state paints a “stark” picture of the challenges Somali Minnesotans face, said Susan Brower, the state’s demographer. Almost 60 percent live under the poverty line, compared with 11 percent of all Minnesota. Unemployment of adults in the labor force stands at 20 percent, the highest of any group in the state. But Brower said recent years have also brought rapid gains in employment, high school graduation and college attendance for that community.
“While there are immediate costs to refugee resettlement now, we need to take a longer view,” she said.
Trump a ‘voice of reason’
Kathleen Virnig, a former Christian bookstore owner in St. Cloud who has organized events questioning the resettlement of Muslim refugees, says Trump is giving a national platform to concerns she and a group of active speakers on the issue have expressed. She called him a “voice of reason” who stands to embolden those who have criticized resettlement.
She worries the U.S. government isn’t vetting refugees thoroughly enough and argues Muslim refugees would have an easier time adjusting to Muslim-majority countries.
“We’re resettling people when we have no idea what their reason for wanting to be here might be,” Virnig said.
Community leader Hodan Hassan says amid scrutiny of challenges facing the Somali community, many success stories are unfairly overshadowed — including a rise in local entrepreneurship and growth in college educated professionals, including physicians and attorneys. Hassan serves on the Somali American Task Force, a group that has offered feedback to U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger on efforts to prevent radical recruitment.
She said Trump’s remarks breed fear in the community — and have inspired a determination to take part in the election.
“Statements like that will drive people to hit the polls and vote for his opponent,” she said. “In his twisted way, he is empowering us.”
Ibrahim, the Army Reserve specialist, says he used to relate to the argument of some non-Somali friends that a businessman and political outsider in the presidency might be good for the U.S. economy. He no longer does, now that he feels personally singled out by Trump. A law enforcement major in college, Ibrahim enlisted after he graduated from Eagan High School, a goal he had since arriving with his family from Africa at age 9.
“I want to serve my country, go to school and help out my family,” he said. “I am no danger to the community.”