Immigration issue could be political windfall for Pawlenty

Signs of the times
Signs at Saturday's rally against illegal immigration showcased slogans like, "What part of illegal don't you understand?" and "If you are illegal, go home."
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Pawlenty rolled out his immigration proposals in January, saying the state has looked the other way for far too long on illegal immigration. He proposed tougher penalties for fake IDs and criminal activity related to illegal immigration, and later offered some incentives for legal immigration.

DFL Sen. Sandy Pappas of St. Paul says she and many legislators think Pawlenty's proposals go too far.

Sen. Sandy Pappas
DFL Sen. Sandy Pappas of St. Paul says she and many legislators think Pawlenty's proposals go too far.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

"We're a country of immigrants. We're a compassionate country. People come here to work, for a better life for themselves and their families, and that's the American tradition. That's why our ancestors came here. And it's kind of mean-spirited to call them criminals and go after them and threaten them with deportation and arrest," she says.

Senate DFLers aren't interested in Pawlenty's punitive measures, but they agree with some of his ideas for encouraging legal immigration, such as a citizenship tax credit. Pappas is proposing the "Dream Act," which would allow students who graduate from Minnesota high schools to qualify for in-state tuition, regardless of their immigration status. The proposal has been included in higher education bills in both the House and Senate.

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Pappas says Pawlenty threatened to veto last year's higher education funding bill if it contained the measure, but she urges him to reconsider his opposition this year.

"We're hoping that he may regret some of the harshness of some of his proposals, and feel like this would be a way to soften his approach toward immigrants. It's pretty hard to deny young people a higher education," says Pappas, who hasn't persuaded Gov. Pawlenty, according to his spokesman, Brian McClung.

"We're opposed to subsidizing and providing in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants. There are limited state resources, and there's a limited number of people that are able to take advantage of in-state college tuition," McClung says.

McClung says Pawlenty is hopeful that the Legislature will pass some of his immigration initiatives this year.

House Republican leaders came out early in support of the governor's immigration package, but many of those proposals have gotten watered down in the House Public Safety Committee. Committee chair Steve Smith, a Republican from Mound, says he's been trying to find areas of concensus that can get through the Legislature.

"We need something to pass, so there's no point in standing on nine, when you're going to get three or four or five," Smith says.

His bill would make it a felony to create false documents, as Pawlenty called for. But the Public Safety Committee relaxed Pawlenty's proposed new penalty for possessing fake IDs, out of concern that the law would mainly be used against underage drinkers.

Smith's bill also includes Pawlenty proposals to fine employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers, and to create a special crimes unit, although both of those proposals were changed in committee as well.

Political scientist Larry Jacobs from the University of Minnesota says even if Pawlenty's immigration package doesn't make it through the Legislature this year, it may help the governor politically.

"It could well fit into his strategy to win reelection, particularly as a way to appeal to the blue-collar Democratic voter, and perhaps some of the independent voters who are anxious and perhaps even angry at what they see as an army of immigrants flowing into Minnesota," says Jacobs.

Jacobs says Pawlenty's call for a crackdown on illegal immigration helps him shore up his conservative base, and reach out to voters in the middle. He says Pawlenty's probably not worried about the 30,000 people who rallied at the Capitol; either they're not citizens so they can't vote, or they wouldn't have voted for Pawlenty regardless of his immigration plan.