OP-ED: Why I asked Tim Pawlenty about the contributions of Somali refugees to Minnesota

It seems fair to ask anyone running for governor to explain how they weigh both the challenges and benefits of immigration in Minnesota.

Jared Goyette
June 14, 2018 - 2:48 pm

WCCO Radio

Yesterday, Tim Pawlenty visited the WCCO Radio newsroom before appearing on a talk show, and in a brief interview we asked him two questions about his stance on immigration and refugee resettlement:  

Since then, a tweet with a video of his second response on a question I asked— on the contributions of Somali refugees to the state — got traction on Twitter, drawing a response from one of the Democratic candidates, Erin Murphy.  

I'll let his answer speak for itself, but here’s what I was thinking with that question.

The influence of President Donald Trump is hanging over every statewide election across the country, including the Republican primary for governor in Minnesota, and the issue where this is perhaps most obvious is on immigration.

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson called for a “pause” on refugee resettlement in Minnesota in a Star Tribune op-ed published in Dec. of 2017, and Tim Pawlenty, who just entered the race in April, has followed suit, taking the same stance.

The backdrop to all this goes back to the presidential election — Trump made the scrutiny of refugees, particular Syrian refugees, a pillar of his campaign and recurring theme of his stump speeches, often via renditions of the “Snake” poem.  In a campaign stop in Minneapolis, he specifically targeted Somalis refugees, referring to their arrival as “the disaster” taking place in Minnesota.

Whatever you think of his immigration policy, Trump’s anti-refugee message resonated with voters. Pawlenty and Johnson are betting that it still does, and when it comes to the Republican primary, they’re probably right.  

“Immigration has been a key issue for both Johnson and Pawlenty in the Republican primary and it's because the Republican base is very fired up on the issue. So Johnson first and then later Pawlenty, have been tying immigration policy and immigration in Minnesota to national security,” WCCO Political Analysis Blois Olson told me.

John Keller, Executive Director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, a St. Paul-based nonprofit and immigrant advocacy group, pays attention to the campaign rhetoric on this issue more than most — and for him, Pawlenty has been tacking to the right.   

“Unfortunately, we've seen over the course of the last few weeks kind of a pattern of comments coming from the former governor about immigrants and refugees. I think the most recent couple of comments have particularly focused on refugees and the reality of what the governor was calling for, of shutting down refugee arrivals to the state of Minnesota,” Keller said.

But as Pat Kessler at WCCO TV pointed out in his “Reality Check” segment, states do not have the option of “pausing” refugee resettlement, which is administered by the federal government through a process he explains here. And so far, attempts by states to sue the federal government to stop refugee resettlement have been thrown out of court (see Alabama, Texas, Indiana and Tennessee).  

It’s unclear, then, at least from a practical point of view, how Pawlenty or Johnson plan to “pause” refugee resettlement in Minnesota. When asked about that by WCCO Reporter Edgar Linares, Pawlenty did not address that point directly, instead speaking more broadly about how our current legal immigration system is “out of control,” and returning to his oft-repeated criticism of immigrant sanctuary policies.

But an underlying issue here is how one views the role of immigrants in Minnesota. On that front, there’s some evidence that, in an economic sense, Minnesota has benefited from immigrants.

A report last year from the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota concluded that “a focus on attracting more immigrants is an imperative for Minnesota in order to address the challenges linked to the slowing growth of the state’s population and labor force.” Another report from the not-very-liberal Minnesota Chamber of Commerce noted that “As consumers, immigrants in Minnesota have an estimated $659 billion in lifetime earnings and annual purchasing power of $5 billion. Immigration slows population decline in rural towns and struggling urban neighborhoods, and contributes to the growth of housing values.”

Pawlenty's former Chief of Staff and Commissioner of Public Safety, Charlie Weaver has also chimed in, telling TCB Mag that “We need immigrants in this state. It’s all across the spectrum. It’s the doctors who come in and work at the Mayo Clinic to the person who is working in a slaughterhouse for Hormel to the construction workers for Mortenson and Ryan.”

That's just one point of view on the economic side of a complex issue, and of course, all of this is up for debate. It's one that we're getting used to — the divide in the Republican party between business-minded conservatives and grassroots activists on immigration is nothing new, nor is it surprising that Pawlenty, under pressure from Johnson, would want to appeal to the grassroots in the middle of a primary.

And at the same time, there are real costs associated with immigration. States tend to spend more on first-generation immigrants, but the "average household headed by second-generation immigrants pays more in taxes than it receives in public services," according to an analysis by the Washington Post. As that piece points out, how all that shakes out differs from place to place. 

But, if we’re going to have a rational conversation about immigration, as Jeff Johnson pointedly called for in his Star Tribune op-ed, it seems fair to ask anyone running for governor to explain how they weigh both the challenges and benefits of immigration in Minnesota. Both sides of that coin are real, and both need to be considered by policymakers, Democrat and Republican. Hence, the question to Pawlenty on the contributions of Somali refugees to the state.