Minnesota immigrants keep close eye on presidential election

Published 9:16 am Thursday, October 20, 2016

By Tim Pugmire

MPR.org/90.1 FM

Donald Trump ensured immigration would be a prominent campaign issue when he entered the race last year with a jarring assessment of immigrants from Mexico.

“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people,” Trump said at the time.

Trump also proposed a remedy that quickly became a centerpiece of his campaign.

“I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall,” he said.

Trump has called for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants. He also wants tougher rules for handling refugees. At one point, he proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

Hillary Clinton has outlined a dramatically different approach to immigration reform.

“We’re going to end family detention, close private detention facilities and stop the raids and roundups,” Clinton said last month in a speech to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.

With the major-party candidates having such contrasting stances on immigration, many of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants in Minnesota are watching this year’s presidential election closely.

Rick Aguilar, a Latino businessman and Trump supporter from St. Paul, said he thinks the Republican nominee initially spoke too broadly and too harshly about immigrants. But he agrees with Trump’s concern about border security.

Trump critics should keep in mind that there’s already a series of walls and fences along parts of the southern border, Aguilar said.

“You know people are saying ‘he’s going to build a wall.’ No, no, no,” Aguilar said. “He’s going to extend and make it more effective. Not build a wall. The wall is already there.”

Clinton wants “humane” enforcement of immigration laws and a pathway to citizenship. She also supports President Obama’s recent executive order attempts to protect undocumented parents and their children from deportation.

At a recent gathering of Clinton supporters in Minneapolis, Jose Gonzalez of St. Paul said he agrees with the Democratic nominee’s approach. Gonzalez, who was born in Mexico and became a U.S. citizen 30 years ago, said the pathway needs to be affordable and accessible.

“If you don’t have a criminal record, you’ve been paying taxes for the past 20 years, you’ve been doing other things in the community, I think you should be able to put in an application for citizenship, even though maybe the way you got here wasn’t following the correct process,” Gonzalez said.

Minnesota has 428,000 foreign-born residents, according to the latest statistics from 2014. That just over 7 percent of the state population.

About half of the state’s foreign-born residents are naturalized U.S. citizens.

The latest data from the Pew Research Center show there are an estimated 95,000 undocumented immigrants in Minnesota.

John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, says a broad coalition of the state’s business, labor and faith groups has been working to help those immigrants and to improve federal immigration policy.

“We need immigrants,” Keller said. “We’re a stronger state and country when people have legal status and have a way to earn that legal status, to come forward and go through background checks and affirmatively apply to be able to sink down roots here.”

There are still many misconceptions about immigrants in Minnesota, Keller said. He said one persistent myth is that they come here for public benefits. Another is that they’re strictly low-skill laborers.

“You certainly do have a number of people who are working in entry level work and hard work and often in two or three jobs,” he said. “But you also have a significant number of immigrants who arrive with excellent education or who once in the U.S. do a great job of improving on the education they came here with.”

A state-by-state study released this year by the Partnership for the New American Economy showed Minnesota immigrants earned $12.2 billion in 2014 and paid $3.1 billion in taxes.

In addition to economic contributions, the study highlighted immigrants’ potential voting impact. Minnesota had 202,000 foreign-born residents who were eligible to vote in 2014. And that number, like the immigrant population as a whole, keeps growing.

Sixty-five people from 32 counties recently packed a federal courtroom in St. Paul to be sworn in as naturalized U.S. citizens.

And with citizenship comes the right to vote.

Victoria Saldana, an immigrant from Mexico, has lived in the U.S. since 1995. After the recent ceremony, Saldana would not say which candidate will get her vote. But she stressed that she specifically pursued citizenship to vote in this year’s presidential election.

“I think voting is very important, especially for this debate that we’re having,” Saldana said. “I think it’s very important on this one, especially on this one, to vote.”

Another new American, Lula Saleh, said she too plans to vote, but she hadn’t decided who to vote for. Saleh is of Eritrean and Ethiopian heritage, and was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. Immigration and race and religious tolerance are among the issues she’s thinking about when considering the candidates.

“One is super anti-immigrant. But one has kind of been weak on racial justice policy,” Saleh said. “So I’m conflicted.”

Dan Ali, a new citizen from Ghana, said he’s planning to vote. But he said immigration is not his top issue.

“The economy, yes. That’s key,” Ali said. “That’s what I’m looking at, the economy. Every other thing, as important as it may be, that is a little secondary, yes.”

Volunteers from the League of Women Voters Minnesota are on hand at every naturalization ceremony to help the new Americans register to vote. Judy Stuthman has been attending the ceremonies for nearly 20 years. She said the registration numbers are way up this year.

“We do have a lot of refugees in our immigrant community,” Stutsman said. “For a lot of them, they’ve not had the possibility of voting before. So then it becomes something that they can get very passionate about.”