Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty has made immigration the major policy focus of his comeback bid for governor, delivering a tough message amid a heated national debate as he tries to win over Minnesota Republicans.

Since launching his campaign in April, Pawlenty has decried undocumented immigrants receiving government benefits, highlighted the case of a 90-year-old Carver County farmer beaten to death by two undocumented immigrants in 2015, called for a "pause" in refugee resettlement to Minnesota and spent weeks hammering some of the DFL candidates for governor for saying Minnesota should be a "sanctuary state" that bans local police from enforcing federal immigration law.

The immigration debate has emerged as a polarizing cultural fracas in the years since Pawlenty left politics. The Republican Party is now firmly under the leadership of President Donald Trump, who called Somali refugee resettlement to Minnesota a "disaster" and has complained about immigrants coming from what he reportedly called "shithole" countries.

But in response to e-mailed questions from the Star Tribune, Pawlenty said it's not a new issue for him.

"I have traveled around Minnesota and addressed many issues and immigration is one of those issues," wrote Pawlenty, who declined an interview request for this story. "This is not a change in focus. In fact, cracking down on illegal immigration was a key priority when I ran in 2002, 2006 and during my time as governor. Illegal immigration is a big problem and it needs to be strongly addressed."

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, also running for the Republican nomination for governor in the Aug. 14 primary, said Pawlenty's immigration emphasis is a poll-tested play for the GOP electorate.

"If [Pawlenty] is talking about it, that means it's polling well," Johnson said, citing $96,000 the Pawlenty campaign spent on polls in recent months, according to state campaign filings. Johnson said in a news conference last week that one of his first actions as governor would be to fly to Washington to tell the Trump administration that Minnesota is no longer accepting refugees.

As governor, Pawlenty, who served from 2003 to 2011, sent the Minnesota National Guard to the southern border to help combat illegal immigration and proposed legislation and signed executive orders meant to stem the flow of undocumented immigrants to Minnesota.

DFL critics say Pawlenty's focus on immigration, then and now, are attempts to distract voters from his record on issues like education, health care and the $6 billion budget deficit that existed when he left office.

"This is the Pawlenty playbook," said Javier Morillo, the president of Service Employees International Union Local 26. Morillo supports U.S. Rep. Tim Walz in the DFL race for governor.

"Whenever his poll numbers would go down, he would come up with something divisive," Morillo said. In the Trump era, Morillo said, Pawlenty is using the same approach "on steroids."

While Pawlenty tries to win over voters loyal to Trump, he could alienate suburbanites and business interests who are more open to immigration and much less likely to support the Trump administration's child separation policy. Pawlenty said he opposed that.

"The Republican establishment is pretty powerful and they're rooted in the business community, and they've taken a pro-immigration stance," said Ryan Allen, a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs who published a 2017 report positing that Minnesota needs immigrants if the state is to meet its labor shortage. That report was commissioned by a group that included the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and Greater MSP.

Between 2007 and the first half of 2017, Minnesota became home to more than 21,000 refugees, with nearly 80 percent to either Hennepin or Ramsey counties. Although Somali refugees have received much of the attention from local and national media, nearly as many refugees came from Burma during that time.

"Many Minnesotans are understandably concerned with the tremendous cost this influx of refugees brings with it," Johnson said.

Johnson also referred to concerns about security. The state has seen more than 30 defendants charged in Al-Shabab and ISIS-related cases in the past decade, although some were native-born American citizens — often of Somali descent — not Somali refugees.

Like Johnson, Pawlenty has called for a moratorium on refugee resettlement. This is a change in approach from when he was governor: In a 2004 letter to the Minnesota congressional delegation seeking funding to support 5,000 Hmong refugees, Pawlenty described the immigrants as "resourceful, they value education, and they believe strongly in family and community."

"Minnesota has a proud tradition of welcoming legal immigrants, including refugees, but our state has done more than its share in that regard and we need to halt the program for now until our immigration system is fixed," Pawlenty said.

Allen said a pause in refugee resettlement would add to one of the state's key economic challenges: lack of workers, both skilled and unskilled.

"We have a workforce shortage in Minnesota," said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents the state's largest companies. "Given the demographics, we cannot grow the workforce without immigrants."

Weaver, a former chief of staff to Pawlenty when he was governor, nonetheless said Pawlenty was right to take aim at illegal immigration. In his written response, Pawlenty said that "legal immigration should emphasize merit and meeting the needs of the U.S., including specific unmet workforce needs."

Paul Vaaler, who holds joint appointments to the University of Minnesota law and business schools, said immigrants commit fewer crimes and are three times more likely to start a business than native -born citizens.

"If we're trying to create a vibrant, entrepreneurial economy, immigrants are essential," he said.

Because a disproportionate share of Minnesota's immigrants are refugees, a moratorium on refugee resettlement would mean a decline in immigration. Pawlenty said in his e-mailed responses that he "would not seek to increase the number of other immigrants to Minnesota to offset the loss of migrants."

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which recently endorsed Pawlenty, has called for a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, many of whom are working in the economy but not legally.

Asked about legal status, Pawlenty said, "The federal government is responsible for addressing how to address the status of the estimated 9 to 15 million people who are in the country illegally but local and state law enforcement can be helpful partners in that regard. Unfortunately, all of my DFL opponents support allowing 'sanctuary cities' in Minnesota which limit local law enforcement officials from cooperating with federal immigration officials."

Walz, who is running against state Rep. Erin Murphy and Attorney General Lori Swanson for the DFL nomination for governor, has been on the receiving end of Pawlenty attacks. In a recent interview, he called Pawlenty's rhetoric "cancerous." As a sovereign nation the United States should enforce its border, but local law enforcement would be better deployed solving local crime, Walz said.

Making immigration stops, Walz said, would "undermine security, safety and trust" that police need to solve crimes, including against undocumented immigrants.

"He's trying to scare people about who their neighbors are," Walz said.

J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042