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Trump’s man in Minnesota: even as his colleagues cry foul over immigration orders, Emmer stays loyal to the administration

Immigrant advocates once believed the second-term Republican might take a more tempered approach on immigration and refugee issues.

Emmer argued that Trump’s orders were necessary for national security because, “under the Obama Administration we were forced to stand by and watch as individuals exploited our refugee and immigration systems without recourse.”
MinnPost file photo by Jana Freiband

President Donald Trump issued a flurry of executive orders on immigration last week, ordering the construction of the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, ramping up deportation enforcement, and defunding sanctuary jurisdictions.

But what dominated the news over the weekend was his order that temporarily suspends refugee resettlement in the U.S., and implements harsh restrictions on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries — even for legal U.S. residents.

Minnesota’s Democratic lawmakers immediately denounced the orders in strong terms, even joining demonstrators at protests in Minnesota and D.C. There’s opposition on the Republican side, too, with Rep. Erik Paulsen denouncing Trump’s order and Rep. Jason Lewis distancing himself from its more controversial provisions.

The one Minnesotan representative to come out in support of the immigration orders before and after the backlash was Rep. Tom Emmer, a move that surprised and disappointed immigrant advocates, who once believed the second-term Republican might take a more tempered approach on immigration and refugee issues.

Refugees ‘exploited’ system

Emmer, who was a true GOP team player in an election when many of his fellow Republicans distanced themselves from Trump, is once again embracing that role in the chaotic early days of the administration. Last week, after Trump signed the initial immigration orders, Emmer was the only Minnesota Republican to come out with a statement voicing support. In that statement, Emmer also alluded to the restrictions that were to come, making strong claims about the immigration and refugee systems that the president himself would approve.

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Emmer argued that Trump’s orders were necessary for national security because, “under the Obama Administration we were forced to stand by and watch as individuals exploited our refugee and immigration systems without recourse.”

Yet several immigration experts, lawyers, and refugees themselves interviewed by MinnPost said that it is almost impossible to exploit the refugee system. Under Barack Obama’s administration, the refugee resettlement process took multiple years, with numerous background, health, and national security checks carried out by several different federal agencies.

Ryan Allen, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota who studies immigration policy, said he does not know of any “credible evidence” that the U.S. refugee program is being exploited in a systematic way. “When you combine the existence of the current vetting process with the fact that we admit an incredibly small number and proportion of people deemed to be refugees by the United Nations, it is hard to see how anyone can ‘exploit’ our refugee resettlement program.”

Only one percent of the global refugee population, estimated at 20 million, is eligible to resettle in the U.S., a figure determined by the United Nations. In 2016, 85,000 refugees were admitted to the U.S. — 0.4 percent of all refugees.

In a follow-up to clarify what he meant about exploitation of the refugee system, Emmer said “we have seen attacks in the U.S. and abroad by individuals who have abused the pure-minded intentions of the refugee and immigration programs,” adding that though the vast majority of immigrants come peacefully, enhancing the program is necessary to ensure safety.

However, the most recent high-profile terrorist attacks in the U.S., like the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, were carried out by legal U.S. residents radicalized on American soil. A Somali refugee killed one person in an attack at Ohio State University in November, but he had arrived in the U.S. in 2014 and federal investigators believed he had been inspired by Islamic State propaganda.

Weekend backlash

On Friday afternoon, Trump signed the big executive orders, to crack down on travel between the U.S. and seven countries — Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Libya — basically halt refugee admission for four months, and indefinitely halt admission of Syrian refugees.

It’s not the full “Muslim ban” Trump once called for on the campaign trail, but the orders disproportionately affected Muslim U.S. residents, who were detained over the weekend at airports in the U.S. and elsewhere despite having legal status.

As Democrats responded to Trump’s orders as cruel, confusing, and un-American, Paulsen denounced them too, saying in a statement the policy was “too broad and has been poorly implemented and conceived.”

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Lewis said in a statement that Americans expect “proper vetting,” but made clear his issues with the order, saying that a religious test is not supported by the Constitution and that green card holders and veterans shouldn’t be denied entry to the country.

But Emmer continued to back the administration. In a Monday statement, he said the executive order “takes temporary and important steps to reevaluate and enhance our refugee and visa screening process.” The Paris and San Bernardino attacks, he claimed, illustrate the danger of not having a “thorough and secure” vetting process.

Emmer did not say that green card holders, students, or others lawfully in the U.S. should be spared the scrutiny given over the weekend, only adding that “improvements may be needed” and that he is confident Congress will address the issue.

A change in approach? 

A Republican’s support or opposition to Trump’s orders is, thus far, the most significant test of fealty to the new administration in its first 10 days, and Emmer has shown he’s clearly on the same page as the White House.

To immigration advocates who have watched Emmer over the years, that is a disappointing development. For a while, Emmer cut an unconventional profile on immigration issues. Along with Rep. Keith Ellison, he founded the Congressional Somali Caucus, the first congressional group devoted to the issues of Somalis in Africa and the U.S. And in an October 2016 episode of the popular radio show “This American Life” that explored the tensions between recent Somali arrivals and longtime St. Cloud residents, Emmer was featured prominently. The episode included a scene from a town hall meeting in which Emmer stood up for Somali immigrants, pushing back against some of his constituents who wanted to stop Somalis from settling in the area.

John Keller, who runs the Immigration Law Center of Minnesota, called the recent turn of events “really unfortunate, because I think [Emmer] has done a good job in the past in trying to stick up for refugees in his district and in that region.”

Jane Graupman of the International Institute of Minnesota, a nonprofit that assists in refugee resettlement, said Emmer had been “much more welcoming to refugees in our community… I felt like he was trying to be an advocate and a voice of reason.”

Husein Mohamud spent most of his life in a refugee camp in Kenya and waited six years to be admitted to the U.S., arriving in 2012. Now he lives in St. Cloud, and is saddened and frustrated by what’s happening. “Politicians like Tom Emmer and Donald Trump, what they say, refugees exploiting the settlement opportunity, that’s baseless,” Mohamud said. “These actions will make harder the life of refugees.”

The prospect of coming to the U.S. — however remote — provides hope for those living in crowded refugee camps in Africa, Mohamud said. “Once American leaders say we’re going to shut it down, that’s not how to make America great.”

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Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the organization where Jane Graupman works.