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Immigrant groups are gearing up quickly to counter Pawlenty’s hurtful proposals

Last week, Gov. Tim Pawlenty unveiled his latest strategy for dealing with undocumented immigration in Minnesota.
And it didn’t take long for immigrant groups to gather to discuss how to combat the governor’s plan.

Last week, Gov. Tim Pawlenty unveiled his latest strategy for dealing with undocumented immigration in Minnesota.

And it didn’t take long for immigrant groups to gather to discuss how to combat the governor’s plan. This week, representatives met at the offices of the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network in St. Paul. Those in attendance represented a wide range of groups from the metro area and from greater Minnesota.

They did not want the press to report on their discussions at the working session; however, I was able to speak with several participants later on and gauge their thoughts.

“It’s very similar with what he came out with two years ago,” says Brad Sigal, a member of the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Coalition (MIRAC). “The difference is that this time he has included four executive actions, in addition to the legislative proposals.”

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Sigal echoed the widely reported reaction that Pawlenty’s proposal is political maneuvering on the governor’s part.

“It’s for election purposes,” he says, “but the fact is that it has real and immediate impact, whether the legislative proposals pass or not. It creates a climate of fear, a climate where business owners will start taking matters into their own hands … and it emboldens law enforcement to mess with people with regard to their immigration status, particularly in outstate Minnesota.”

Joshua Becerra works for Neighborhood House, a social service agency with more than 100 years of experience helping immigrant and refugee populations in Minnesota.

He notes that the immigration issue that always makes headlines focuses exclusively on who is admitted into the United States and under what circumstances. “Amid the sound and fury of this national immigration debate, Minnesotans must face certain plain realities,” he says. “As the baby boom generation approaches retirement age, these newcomers will play an increasingly important role in keeping our state’s economy vibrant.”

Neighborhood House, he says, is interested in shifting the policy conversation on immigration from the topic of “documented/undocumented — legal/illegal” to immigrant-integration policy.

Jerry Kahlert of the faith-based group ISAIAH, explains the situation: “We live in a civilized state but stand by silently as federal agents take parents away from their children and split families. We ignore their human dignity and the fact that immigrants are here for the same reasons that brought our ancestors. The only difference is that present immigration law offers no path to citizenship for most residents of Mexico and many Latino nations.”

Déjà vu
In discussing the governor’s plan with these folks, I was struck by the similarity of the conversations — it was déjà vu from two years ago. As you might have gleaned from my post last week, I did not think much of the proposals and the report on immigration that the governor released in January 2006.

Looking through the report again this week, I was struck again with its failings. Really, the preface says it all: “This report does not consider any of the benefits illegal immigrants provide in areas such as labor or tax revenue.”

You can’t title a report “The Impact of Illegal Immigration on Minnesota” and not take into account what they contribute. It’s misleading, to say the least, and doesn’t abide by basic math principles. To get a true understanding of net impact, you must first get the figures on what is contributed and then subtract the costs.

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Perhaps the governor avoided this to sidestep data that clearly demonstrate the economic and cultural benefits of immigration in Minnesota and elsewhere. (For one example, see the report “Economic Impact of Undocumented Workers in Minnesota” (PDF) from HACER (Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research), a nonprofit, community-based research organization.

When I compare the report of two years ago and the press release that came out last week from the governor’s office, it is obvious how much of it is rehashed rhetoric and how little of it is based on reality.

Perhaps the thing that struck me the most is that Pawlenty is still sticking with platitudes. “Legal immigration is an important part of our American heritage, but we need to do more to combat illegal immigration,” he said in last week’s press release.

Let’s get this straight: The current path to so-called “legal” immigration in the United States is grossly inadequate to meet the demands of the American economy. Depending on your country of origin, you could wait five, 10, 15 or more years for your permanent resident visas (green cards). Who will fill workforce demands in the meantime?

Of course, there is a very simple solution to the problem: increase the number of visas to keep up with workforce demands and then enact — and enforce — laws that ensure immigrant workers their rights.

It’s very simple, but it seems very unlikely in the current political climate.

There are 12 million or more people in this country who are “treated like garbage,” Sigal says. “It’s obscene. Some Democrats have decided it’s a losing political issue for their electoral purposes. They’ve put electoral calculations in front of basic human rights of people working in and for this country.”

The key will be mobilizing immigrant communities, as was done in 2006, he says, noting work on both short- and long-term efforts. “If there is a will, the Legislature can do something to ensure basic human rights for immigrant workers in Minnesota.”