Stiehm: Federal legislation needed on the immigration front

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, May 29, 2010

Editor’s note: Each month, the Austin Daily Herald will sit down with Mayor Tom Stiehm to discuss the pressing local issues of the day. On May 28, Stiehm chatted with the Herald about the upcoming election and immigration issues. This is part one of a two-part interview — part two will run Monday.

*To date, three challengers have filed against you in the mayoral race. Are you confident you will win and what do you have to do to make that happen?

Well, you never know who’s going to win. I mean, things happen. I’m confident that I’m the best candidate for the city. I think, you know, we just talked a little bit about these tax (numbers) … The city I think is going fine right now; we’re 122nd out of 124 cities (in Minnesota) per capita as far as taxes. That means two cities have lower taxes than the city of Austin per capita. Well, you got to be happy about that. I mean, it’s always like “taxes” is a dirty word, you know? And … every conversation regarding taxes is negative and it shouldn’t be that way because taxes buy you your quality of life. The thing with taxes is you have to make sure they’re spent wisely. If you say taxes are bad, you’re saying police are bad, fire (departments) are bad, parks are bad, schools are bad. You know these all come from taxes. Taxes aren’t necessarily bad. Spending (them) unwisely is bad. I mean, you talk to people, you know what’s a good tax dollar? It’s one you spend on me. What’s a bad one? One you didn’t spend on me or my concerns.

*You would say Austin is very efficient (with its tax dollars)?

Austin is very efficient. I’d like to take credit for it, but we have some excellent employees … (Administrative services director) Tom Dankert is probably one of the most important employees in the city of Austin. He just does an excellent job year-in and year-out. We’re fortunate to have him because he’s an Austin guy. He does it because he really likes Austin, he likes living here. He can go anywhere. In a heartbeat, he can go get a job probably making as much money with other people, but he’s dedicated to the city of Austin. Our city administrator … you know, a lot of times they are lightning rods and they take a lot of heat. (Austin City Administrator Jim Hurm has) a doctorate in city administration and … he does a good job. So, we have excellent employees. When you look at our department heads, I mean you just … you know, we have a situation with the fire department that we’re resolving and the police department, but I mean, I think we just have excellent departments. I couldn’t be happier with our city employees. I do think we’re on the right road.

*Do you think that the fact that there’s a large (mayoral) field shows that there’s any dissatisfaction with what you’ve been doing?

Well, I think there’s always dissatisfaction. You know, I really do. It’s just … when an election comes up, 25 percent of the people, you know … Porky Pig could run and they’d vote for (him) because they’re just going to vote for whoever is not in office at the time. It’s just a general dissatisfaction. There’s just a negative connotation — we talked about taxes. I think there’s the same negative connotation about politicians. When you look at federal politicians … I’m so frustrated with what’s going on federally as far as immigration that it drives me crazy … The lower the level of politician, the more responsive they are. I think the city officials … and I’m not just talking about myself … but our city council people (as well), are very concerned about the city … I think our local legislators, they did a terrific job this year. (Dan) Sparks and Jeanne Poppe did a real good job of keeping LGA and … keeping us (from) getting hit too hard. The further away you go … every time Congressman (Tim) Walz is down … he says, “What’s the problem in Austin?” I say, “Immigration, immigration.” (Walz says,) “Yeah, we’re going to get that this year.” Well I’ve been hearing “this year” for almost four years now, and after awhile you think, “Am I being told an untruth or are they just not capable of dealing with this issue?” Every year they go through their legislative session and don’t address immigration. It’s like telling us in Austin that we’re not important enough to take care of our issues.

*On that note, I’ll skip ahead a little bit because I do have a question on that subject. Obviously, the new Arizona immigration law is stirring up a lot of debate and controversy since it’s been passed. Have you had time to analyze the law and what are your reactions, particularly because, as you mentioned, Austin has that immigration problem?

I haven’t analyzed it in depth. You hear good things about it, you hear bad things about it. But, what I have thought about, I’ve thought about this a lot lately is, every single year that they ignore immigration they push people more towards these … extremes. It’s like, “Yeah, I don’t like the Nazi philosophy but at least they’re addressing this issue.” And, out of frustration, people start reaching out to groups like this. And, every year that they ignore immigration, you start to see more and more initiatives like Arizona, and other states have talked about (similar laws), cities (also). You’re going to see that people are going to go there out of frustration because nothing is being done. We know in Austin that it’s a major issue. But, if you live 30 miles away in Rochester or somewhere else where it’s not that big of an issue, and they have a lot of the political power, you know, to them it’s not that big of an issue. But, we keep getting ignored. Yeah, it’s going to continue. They’re going to continue shoving people to the extremes. And, it’s unfortunate, but until (the federal government) deals with immigration, I think more and more people are going to head in that direction.

*Do you think that’s a good or bad direction to go? Or just inevitable?

I don’t think it’s a good direction. I think we need to deal realistically with this. We need … right now we have a large amount of people in town that are here illegally. We need to address that problem and we need to find realistic solutions to it. No matter what you do. Twenty years from now, everything, obviously, should be settled by then. We’re going to have a large Hispanic population in Austin. For people that want to go back to the 1960s and 1970s when Austin was (nearly) 100 percent white, that’s not going to happen. And when people say we need to get rid of everybody and make it like it used to be — that’s not a realistic goal to have. We need to have a goal where we can address the labor shortage issues and things like that. Is it a good direction? I don’t know that it’s good or bad, but it’s inevitable until (the federal government) deal(s) with it.

*Would you ever support, say, for example, Austin Police having the ability by law to question people about their immigration status and to ask for papers, which is the case now in Arizona?

Well, they do have the right to do it now, but they just can’t stop somebody for no reason … (There was) a case a couple weeks ago where somebody called up and some lady had stopped in to get a report and the police (glommed) onto her and they deported her. But they were doing an investigation on another issue with her. She was named in something and through that investigation they found out she was here illegally and they deported her. Well, we’re doing that. I mean, I’ve always supported getting rid of the criminals that are here illegally. I think we should do that and I think the police are doing a fine job of that. If somebody comes to Austin and sells drugs, forges checks, things like that, we should (glom) on to these people and get them in the system … We’ll have their fingerprints, so they can get as many IDs as they want, but we’ll have their fingerprints and when the system gets sorted out someday those people aren’t going to be allowed to come into our country, and they aren’t going to be allowed to be citizens.

*(Going back), I don’t want to take you out of context or anything. You mentioned the Nazis in town, the Neo-Nazis in town, (and said) “at least they’re addressing the issue.” … I think you meant something a little different than that …

Right, I just … I disagree with the Nazis 100 percent. I don’t support them. I don’t want them rallying here, but I think that what I’m saying is people look at them as they are addressing an issue that they want addressed, and nobody else is addressing that issue.

*Do you think that without some kind of federal legislation addressing that issue, we’ll see more people going in that kind of direction? One kind of extreme or another?

I think people in Austin have handled these things so well. You just have to be proud of them. Nobody went to the demonstrations. They just fizzled out and died. But you’re going to see more states enacting legislation like (Arizona’s). I don’t see it happening in Minnesota. Because in towns like Austin, Wilmont, Worthington, yes, it is a problem. That’s three towns that I can think of. Other than that, you’ve got 120 others where it’s not that big of an issue. So, I don’t see Minnesota going in that direction. But I think you’re going to see more southern states going in that direction until the federal government addresses this issue. I don’t say I agree with it. It’s going to happen. I will say I think the debate that’s going on now because of it is good. I think the pressure that it puts on the federal government is good. Do I agree with what they’re doing? Probably not. But, I agree that at least it’s pushing the government.

*When you say “what they’re doing,” you mean checking people without any cause, just going up to a Hispanic person and asking them for papers?

Right, and I’m not sure I agree with that, but you know I think it’s good that at least it puts the immigration issue more in the limelight.

*And in Austin, you don’t necessarily want to see police officers doing that, just going up to someone, out of the blue, and asking them? But, if they’re busted for this, that or the other, and they happen to be an illegal immigrant as well, then you want to see very strict …

I think anybody involved in criminal activity, and I mean, you know a lot of people will say that anybody that isn’t here legally is a criminal. I’m talking about criminal activity — forging checks, welfare fraud, things like that. I think we should pursue those people and send them home. Any criminal that’s not here legally should be sent home. And that’s been my position since the first day I ran, but people that aren’t criminals … you know, they’re as much victims in this whole thing as we are. They’re coming here, they’re trying to better their lives … most of them are working hard, keeping quiet and doing everything we would ask a citizen to do. Well, it’s a hard issue. I don’t want to come out of this (as) anti-immigrant, because I’m not. I’m anti-criminal. The immigration status just gives us another tool to deal with the criminals.

To get involved with “Talkin’ with Tom,” e-mail reporter Mike Rose with questions for the mayor at mike.rose@austindailyherald.com. Please use the subject line, “Talkin’ with Tom” and include your first and last name, as well as your city of residence. Some selected questions may be used in upcoming interviews, though the Herald does not guarantee publication, and submissions may be edited for space and content.