Ground Level: On immigration issues, Minnesota shows deep divides

A child holds a sign during a city council meeting on refugees.
A child holds a sign during a city council meeting on refugee resettlement moratoriums Oct. 23, 2017, at city council chambers in St. Cloud.
Dave Schwarz | St. Cloud Times via AP

There is a deep divide in Minnesotans' attitudes toward immigration.

A new survey by MPR News and APM Research Lab finds that people in the largest urban areas tend to say the state's on the right track in welcoming immigrants and refugees. But in rural areas and St. Cloud, feelings are different.

"People are saying, 'Finally, somebody's got the cojones to start talking about this matter,'" he said. "'I've lived here in St. Cloud for 30 years. I'm upset. I pay taxes. I want to know how this program works.'"

People hold signs while leaving after a city council meeting.
People hold signs while leaving after a St. Cloud city council meeting Oct. 23, 2017.
Dave Schwarz | St. Cloud Times via AP

The City Council voted down Johnson's resolution and voted to welcome immigrants instead. Still, our survey suggests that the temporary refugee ban might have garnered a lot of support in St. Cloud and around outstate Minnesota.

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Just 57 percent of respondents said the state was on the right track in welcoming immigrants and refugees. Broken down by geography, the split between urban and rural Minnesotans was clear: In urban areas like the seven-county Twin Cities region, Rochester and Duluth, from 59 percent to 73 percent of respondents thought the state was on the right track in welcoming refugees and immigrants. But in St. Cloud and rural areas, those who said the state was on the right track ranged from just 36 to 46 percent.

Views on immigration and refugees
Views on immigration and refugees
David Montgomery for MPR News

A similarly dramatic division emerged among different political groupings. About 74 percent of Democrats, but only 41 percent of Republicans, thought Minnesota was on the right track with immigrants and refugees. And the split grows even wider among those who approve of President Trump (38 percent say Minnesota is on the right track) and those who disapprove of him (70 percent say so).

In St. Cloud and rural Minnesota, it's easy to find people who believe immigrants are changing their community, and not for the better.

Pat Morin, 73, is a retired waitress and Sears employee who has strong feelings about Somali refugees in her community. She's a St. Cloud native.

"I'm not against immigration," she said. "I'm just against what is going on at the moment. There's just too many — it's costing the country too much."

Martin Althaus, a retired sheriff's deputy from St. Cloud, described himself as a right-leaning libertarian. Arguing that the United States should be taking care of its own problems, like poverty and homeless veterans, he referred to the inscription on the Statue of Liberty.

"This isn't the 1800s or the early 1900s. We don't need your poor, we don't need your huddled masses," he said. "We're full. The inn is full, OK? We've got veterans, men and women, who put their lives on the line to keep this country intact who are living on the streets. We have native-born American children in poverty. We don't need to import other countries' problems. We need to take care of our problems."

Several people said they worry that Muslim immigrants could bring radical Islamic views and the potential for terrorism.

Bernie Bauhof, a retired sporting goods CEO in the northern Minnesota town of Guthrie, said he thinks Muslims aren't changing their cultural practices to adapt to America.

"I think that's an issue, that they don't assimilate into our society," he said. "And we seem to go out of our way to ensure that they don't have to."

Even so, Natalie Ringsmuth, founder of the St. Cloud nonprofit #UniteCloud, said she thinks attitudes toward immigrants are changing.

Halima Aden, Jayse Waisanen and Danyelle Hoff
Halima Aden, left, reacts to Jayse Waisanen who kept touching her out of curiosity as his mother Daynelle Hoff holds him during a unity rally at St. Cloud State University on Sept. 20, 2016.
Renee Jones Schneider | Star Tribune via AP 2016

"I think it will take time and patience," she said. "And I think it takes optimism."

Ringsmuth said while there's still a vocal group that's outspoken against refugees, more people are getting to know and accept their Muslim neighbors.

"I think we've turned a corner to where we're showing other people in central Minnesota that you can be a welcoming city," she said. "And that even with an increase in diversity and with people looking different than one another, you can still be a community that's unified."

Aya, 13, Shadi Anis, Ranim Alchaar, and Abdullah, 11, feel welcome.
A Syrian family, from left, Aya, 13, father Shadi Anis, mother Ranim Alchaar, and Abdullah, 11, feel welcomed in Apple Valley, in their home on Oct. 28, 2017.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

The Twin Cities suburb of Apple Valley, meanwhile, seems farther away from St. Cloud than the 85 miles shown on the map — at least where attitudes toward immigrants are concerned.

Shadi Anis, his wife Ranim Alchaar and their two children fled the Syrian war in 2012. Their journey took them to Turkey, then Saudi Arabia. Now, thanks to Alchaar's luck in winning the diversity visa lottery, they live in Apple Valley.

"It's a totally different experience than Saudi Arabia," Anis said. "In Saudi Arabia, you will not get something like here, permanent residency ... For that reason, it was an amazing thing. To have a new home, to have a new experience."

The family made their new home in Minnesota three years ago. Anis, who was a dentist in Syria, found a job as a dental lab technician in the suburb of Coon Rapids. Alchaar also works in a dental office. Their two children, 13 and 11, are quickly becoming fluent English speakers. They've even been translating for new immigrant students at their school.

Alchaar is still nervous about her communication skills. But she said that despite her lack of confidence, everyone has been nice.

Our survey found positive attitudes toward immigration here in the Twin Cities and other metropolitan areas. Alchaar has noticed, and said the community has made her family feel at home.

Sitting on her couch in Apple Valley in a blue hijab, denim dress and white blazer, Alchaar giggled as she described people's reaction to her modest clothing style.

She said she's never been exposed to any negativity. Many times, people have stopped to compliment the color of her hijab or the way she wraps it.

Cecilia Elmer, 4, helped her mother Kathleen Farrell distribute signs.
Cecilia Elmer, age 4, helped her mother Kathleen Farrell distribute All Are Welcome Here signs to neighbors who purchased them at Unmapped Brewery in Minnetonka on November 5, 2017.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

"It was a surprise because I was expecting people wouldn't be welcoming to Muslims," she said. "Because of what I saw on the news before I came. I was afraid of how Americans would treat us ... but when you start interacting with people, it's not like that."

After all, when the family tells people they're from Syria, the first response is: "Sorry."

Jaime Chismar designed the All Are Welcome Here signs.
Jaime Chismar, who designed the All Are Welcome Here signs, sits for a portrait on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017 in Minneapolis, Minn.
Ellen Schmidt | MPR News

In the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis, we found a more tangible symbol of support — a box of signs saying "All Are Welcome Here."

"This is an order going to a woman named Kathleen, who sold 120 to her neighbors in Minnetonka," said Jaime Chismar Seebacher, who's partly responsible for the signs springing up in city yards and suburbs.

All Are Welcome Here co-founder Gina Rumore
All Are Welcome Here co-founder Gina Rumore poses for a portrait in her home on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017 in Minneapolis, Minn.
Ellen Schmidt | MPR News

She got the idea for the signs after an incident last year at Maple Grove High School. Students had found offensive and racist graffiti in a bathroom. They responded by protesting and making positive signs.

So Chismar Seebacher did the same thing: She made a sign.

"It's such a simple message," she said of her "All Are Welcome Here" placards. "I really wanted a message that was positive and inclusive."

The first box of 500 sold within a day. Within the past year, customers have purchased 11,000. Chismar Seebacher's partner, Gina Rumore, said the signs have sparked tough conversations about race, identity, immigration policy and inclusion.

"What we're seeing is that people aren't willing to be quiet," she said. "And we've sold signs, as far as I can tell, everywhere in the state. Even in pockets where people might not be in support of immigration. I think spreading this message is a first step in winning allies."

The signs have shown up in some unexpected places. They even made their way to the City Council chamber in St. Cloud, where Johnson's proposed ban on refugees lost out to a resolution of welcome.

Learn more

Read the full survey and detailed analysis by the APM Research Lab.

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