Immigration lurks, but not discussed, in 6th district race

ICE arrest
Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced 370 convicted criminals and immigration fugitives were arrested earlier this month across the Midwest as part operation Cross Check, including this individual in Chicago and 48 across Minnesota.
Image provided by ICE

One of the issues facing the next Congress will be fixing America's immigration system, which many consider broken. While that issue is a hot topic in many races around the country this year, in Minnesota's 6th District race, immigration is largely playing out under the radar.

When Olga Franco, a Guatemalan woman in the country illegally, drove into a school bus in 2008 killing four children in Cottonwood, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann appeared on The O'Reilly Factor, a Fox News program, to rail against illegal immigration.

"This is a crime problem. This is an issue of anarchy versus the rule of law," said Bachmann, a Republican who represents Minnesota's 6th Congressional District. "When are we going to get serious about this and stop tinkering around the edges? If we can't get serious and outraged about four innocent kids, one of which will be buried tomorrow, I don't know what it's going to take."

In May, Bachmann told All Patriots Media she supported a new Arizona law that would require local law enforcement to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.

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"When you have innocent Americans being killed on their ranches and in their homes, when you have Phoenix, the kidnap capital of the United States, I applaud Arizona for having to do whatever they can to keep their people safe," Bachmann said.

Clark, Bachmann
DFLer Tarryl Clark, left, and Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann are the congressional candidates in the 6th District.
MPR File Photos

But in her bid for re-election, Bachmann isn't saying much about immigration. She also doesn't discuss the issue on her campaign website.

A statement on her congressional website says Congress must secure the nation's borders and enforce existing immigration laws before considering changes to the current system. Beyond that, Bachmann generally stays away from the issue in her campaign.

Bachmann's Democratic challenger Tarryl Clark similarly avoids the issue. Both say the top issues are jobs and the economy in the 6th District, which stretches from the eastern and northern Twin Cities suburbs west to St. Cloud.

It is Minnesota's most Republican district, and 93 percent white. Four percent of its residents are foreign born, less than one-third of the national average. Fewer than 2 percent of the 6th's residents are Hispanic.

Bachmann declined an MPR News request for an interview. But she hasn't shied away from stronger rhetoric on the national airwaves. And that tough talk is backed up by her voting record.

The lobbying group NumbersUSA, which wants to end illegal immigration and vastly reduce the number of legal immigrants entering and working in the United States, gave Bachmann a career grade of A-, and a B+ this session.


"She's very strong against illegal immigration," Roy Beck, the group's CEO, said of Bachmann. "She's not only for border security, but she's also for taking away the jobs magnet."

According to national polls, Republicans like Bachmann have the upper hand on immigration.

"Overall, about one in two Republican incumbents were focusing on illegal immigration," said Eric Ostermeier, who writes the Smart Politics blog for the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. "Not many of them [were] mentioning the Arizona law in particular, but using the awareness that it raised to advocate changes they'd like to make in immigration policy."

In contrast, only one in five Democrats mentioned immigration -- and some were conservative Blue Dog Democrats who favor stricter enforcement, Ostermeier said. Very few campaigned on immigration reform or the federal Dream Act, which would give children of immigrants not legally in the country a path to citizenship, if they attend college or enter the military.

Ostermeier said this election season, polls show about 70 percent of Americans favor a "get tough" stance on illegal immigration. That sentiment is especially strong in Minnesota's 6th District.

"When you have two-to-one Minnesotans believing that the children of illegal immigrants should not become citizens of the United States, which is the law of the land, then they're probably not going to want them to have the benefits that say the Dream Act would afford them in terms of college tuition," he said. "It would definitely play to Michele Bachmann's advantage in a district like the sixth."

Bachmann has begun to capitalize on this in a recent campaign ad that says Tarryl Clark "voted to give benefits to illegal immigrants."

Clark said the ad is wrong.

"We haven't voted for any benefits on anybody who's undocumented the whole time I've been in the state Senate," Clark said. "There was a bill that was a Chamber-sponsored bill supported by the governor that allowed kids who went to school here to be allowed to pay in-state tuition. That was it."

Clark voted for Minnesota's version of the Dream Act that would give all Minnesota students, regardless of status, the right to pay in-state tuition. Gov. Tim Pawlenty strongly opposed the measure, but signed a compromise bill that allowed most of the MnSCU system to charge flat-rate tuition for residents and non-residents alike.

As for her views on immigration, Clark says she supports immigration reform that she calls "tough, fair and practical" -- tough on borders, fair to taxpayers and practical in dealing with the people who are already here. But there's nothing on her campaign website about it.

Ostermeier, the Smart Politics blogger, said immigration is not a winning issue for Clark, so it's best for her not to raise it.

"Our experience is that no good can come of it," said Bill Blazar, senior vice president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which supports a comprehensive overhaul of federal immigration laws.

The chamber won't endorse either Bachmann or Clark because it's a federal race, but Blazar said campaigns aren't the right place for a thoughtful exchange of views on a subject as charged and complex as immigration.

"Simply to bring it up to play on people's emotions or fears or maybe their misinformation is not good for Minnesota's economy, and you're not doing anybody any justice or favor regardless of the side of the issue you're on," he said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The original version of this story did not include Independence Party candidate Bob Anderson's position on immigration. We regret the omission.

Anderson says he supports sealing the border using surveillance technology and National Guard troops. As an employer, he says he's seen first-hand how difficult it is for companies to know if a worker's papers are in order, so he would favor requiring a national ID card or database so employers could be confident they are hiring legal workers.

Anderson does not favor amnesty for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country, but he would support a more limited version of the Dream Act.

"If somebody's here and they're willing to serve their country in the military I would give them a path to citizenship, but not just for going to college. The military I would," said Anderson.