First in a two-part series about immigration-reform advocacy in Minnesota.
Minnesota immigration reform advocates want lawmakers, set to return to their duties in Washington in a few weeks, to come out of the August recess having heard their message loud and clear.
A coalition of Minnesota business, labor, and faith and social-welfare groups have held events around the Twin Cities six out of the last seven days, from a rally with U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison and Luis Gutierrez on Sunday to a forum that drew 400 advocates to Chaska last week.
With President Obama naming immigration reform a top priority this session, reform advocacy kicked into high gear around the country as early as this spring. In Minnesota, the main groups lobbying for reform have grouped together into an often unlikely coalition of supporters, from the Chamber of Commerce and state business groups to labor unions and religious and social welfare organizations. Their goal: Preach reform as a non-partisan priority, and convince lawmakers to support it.
“It’s one of the broadest coalition that I’ve seen or worked with in my 30-plus years of doing public affairs work, so it’s a big, broad tent,” said Bill Blazar, senior vice president for public affairs and business at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “But, given the nature of the issue, this is probably what is required.”
Everyone is looking for something different
The groups came to support immigration reform in a number of ways.
Labor groups like the SEIU have long backed reform because so many union members could benefit from it. Local 26 President Javier Morillo said its been a priority of his since he took over as president in 2005 (he spent five months in Washington in 2010 trying to get the issue on lawmakers’ radar). He said this time around, reform supporters are “in the best position we’ve ever been.”
The state Chamber took up the mantle about six years ago, Blazar said, after its members considered the impact of immigration on Minnesota’s economy. The group began lobbying with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota around 2008, he said.
Social welfare groups, like the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration and the faith-based ISAIAH group, which sponsored Sunday’s Chaska forum, have long backed reform of some kind. The Rev. John Gutterman of the Interfaith Coalition said his group’s mission over the past few years has been to both influence lawmakers and convince the faith community as a whole that immigration should be a priority.
“I think we’re getting close right now,” he said. “The broadness of the coalition is part of the reason.”
The Chamber, SEIU, ISAIAH, the Minnesota Immigrant Law Center and 15 other organizations make up the Minnesota Business Immigration Coalition, which supports “comprehensive federal reform that recognizes the needs of our economy; protects national security; and is humane.”
Of course, everyone is looking for something a bit different in a reform package.
The Chamber, for example, has three main priorities, Blazar said: Improving employee verification standards and tools, reforming and redesigning the visa program and addressing the legal status of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Morillo said labor is concerned with the status question, and protecting immigrants once they get a job. For the faith the community, it’s a matter of protecting and preserving families throughout the immigration process—an immigrant here illegally set to go to trial should be able to stay with his family instead of in jail, for instance.
‘The intensity is on our side now’
But there is no tension between the individual factions, at least right now. Their goal—comprehensive reform—is the same, even if the specifics need to be hammered out later.
In fact, activists see the coalition’s individual parts as each having influence in different areas. Morillo said the Chamber and business groups have focused a lot on Rep. John Kline, for example, a Republican who has said he’s open to support reform.
“The elected officials need to see that there is broad support for reform,” Blazar said. “I think we need a broad coalition to make progress on any or all of those issues.”
Reform advocates have focused much of their attention on metro Republicans Kline and Erik Paulsen, and moderate Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson. To that end, the SEIU says it’s done door-knocking campaigns around the metro and two or three immigration phone banks every week, beyond events like the Chaska gathering last week.
Gutterman said he’s met with either lawmakers or staffers for every member of the Minnesota delegation, from staunch supporters of reform (Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, who voted for a bill passed by the Senate in June), to those opposed (Rep. Michele Bachmann). Activists’ goal, he said, is to try making immigration a non-partisan issue.
“Nobody will do this on their own,” he said. “We really need Congress to step outside the partisan divide and look at what’s good for the country.”
Where immigration reform has failed in the past, Morillo said he sees an opening this time around.
“The main difference we see is that in past moments where this issue has been discussed, the common wisdom was: The ‘Anti-s’ beat us out in terms of passion,” he said. “The intensity is on our side now.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry
Thursday: Stories from individual advocates who have spent years on the front lines of immigration reform.