New mayor brings back interest in contested immigration program in Willmar

Downtown Willmar
Mayor-elect Frank Yanish has expressed support for pursuing an immigration enforcement program in the small west-central Minnesota town of Willmar.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Several months after a proposed immigration enforcement program sparked an uproar in Willmar, some residents of the west central Minnesota town worry that officials plan to revisit the issue.

Mayor-elect Frank Yanish expressed his support for the program during the campaign. That has some in Willmar concerned that local police could soon check the immigration status of people detained by police, creating an environment they could be hostile to immigrants.

The Willmar City Council first considered applying for an immigration enforcement agreement last spring. The discussion prompted more than 100 people of various ethnic and racial backgrounds to attend a City Council meeting in May.

In a partnership with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, one trained local officer could investigate the immigration status of a suspect who has committed a serious crime. The agency's 287(g) program also authorizes the local officer to detain the suspect for deportation. Such authority usually is reserved for federal immigration officers.

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So far, only the state Department of Public Safety has such an agreement with the agency.

Critics of the program worry about potential consequences. At the May hearing, Maria Diaz told council members she was concerned about racial profiling.

"So I can just see someone pulling me or any other citizen because of how we look, because we don't look like a 'real citizen,'" Diaz said.

Federal immigration officials say the agency rescinds partnerships if officers engage in racial profiling.

Proponents of the agreement say it would make the community safer by removing those who pose the greatest threat.

The council decided not to pursue the agreement last spring. But a revived debate appears likely after changes brought about by the November election.

That's because Yanish has said he favors the program.

Yanish declined to comment for this report. In October, he told local radio station KWLM he welcomes lawful immigrants, but said Willmar does have problems with illegal immigration.

"I'm a firm believer, and it's no secret, in the 287(g) rule that they have," Yanish said.

When asked if he would want the city to cooperate with immigration authorities, Yanish said the program "certainly deserves being looked at some more."

Willmar Mayor Les Heitke
Willmar Mayor Les Heitke said the city has worked hard to fight its reputation as unwelcoming to immigrants. He said the city is proud to have received the National Civic League's 2005 All-America City Award for being among the top ten cities to address critical social issues.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

The City Council is about evenly split on the issue.

Mayor Les Heitke, who has been in office for 16 years, doesn't think it's necessary to empower local officers to process immigration violations. Heitke, who lost his bid for re-election, said the local police department already has a close working relationship with ICE. He said they collaborate about twice a month.

"ICE will drive out from Bloomington, drive here, gather information, interview the person necessary, and if they feel there's a case, they take the person back with them to Bloomington," Heitke said.

While the debate bounces back and forth about whether the program is necessary, several residents say Latino families would move away if the program creates a tense environment.

Roberto Valdez, executive director of the Willmar Area Multicultural Market, said a decision to have local officers acting on behalf of immigration agents would affect the local economy.

"The first impact we will see is the impact on the businesses, not only the niche businesses [such] as the ethnic businesses that we work with, but the businesses in general: the big box stores, even the mom and pop businesses around town," Valdez said.

Whether the federal government would approve the city's application is uncertain. But Valdez and others worry a potential enforcement program would undo the city's progress in creating strong relationships with minority populations.