Most Republicans and DFLers at the Minnesota Capitol are in agreement regarding the most important issues to be addressed this year—education, property taxes, transportation, health care etc. But there is one concern to many Minnesotans that remains bubbling beneath the surface of these top-tier issues that virtually no officeholder seems eager to discuss, let alone take affirmative measures to address: immigration.
Immigration has usually been regarded by Minnesotans (and, most likely, most non-southern border states) as not much of a concern at all, or, if anything, a national and not a state problem. However, in 2006, for the first time in at least a generation immigration registered prominently in the Star Tribune Minnesota Poll asking Minnesotans what is the most important problem facing the state of Minnesota. From 1985 to 2005 not even 1 percent of respondents to the MN Poll had ever mentioned ‘immigration’ as the top problem for the state. Last July, however, immigration ranked as the seventh highest issue, with 4 percent of Gopher State residents naming immigration as the top state problem.
While more in depth state polling has not been conducted addressing why there has been a change in the concern over immigration, there are a number of possible explanations. First, immigration as a national concern became a top-tier issue during the past few years—heightened by the attention to border security driven by stories about the Minutemen, President George W. Bush’s ordering of thousands of national guard troops to back up the U.S. Border Patrol, and harsh criticisms within the Republican Party that Bush was not doing enough on this issue. The national prominence of immigration policy may have caused it to seep over a bit into the realm of state politics.
Secondly, the number of immigrants has increased in the state of Minnesota during recent years. The visibility of this trend in immigration is particularly strong because many of the immigrants are non-white – notably Hmong, Somalian, and Latino.
Thirdly, news stories about illegal immigration in the state are now beginning to bubble up in the media. For example, last month a raid on Swift & Co.’s Worthington, Minnesota meat processing plant was a big story: more than two hundred immigrants were arrested on charges ranging from immigration violations to identity theft. The legal fate of the company is not yet settled.
It is not quite clear for how long Minnesotans will continue to view immigration as a second-tier problem facing the state. Unless or until it emerges (and sustains itself) as a top-tier state problem in the eyes of voters, it is unlikely officeholders in St. Paul will want to go anywhere near this issue. The state’s only semi-vocal anti-illegal immigration statewide candidate in 2006, GOP U.S. Senate nominee Mark Kennedy, was defeated soundly in last November’s election (although that likely had more to do with national politics than his stand on immigration). Tim Pawlenty, meanwhile, drew both fire and praise when, in July 2006, he pledged up to 200 Minnesota National Guard troops to be sent to the southern border under the border protection program outlined by President Bush.