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Immigration reform group attracting adherents, critics
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Immigration lawyer Dan Donnelly says the emergence of an immigration reform group in Owatonna troubles him. He says he visits area schools to teach young people about cultural diversity in their community. (MPR photo/Rob Schmitz)
A group in southern Minnesota concerned about immigration is attracting both support and controversy. The group says now is the time for the United States to dramatically reduce immigration. Critics say the group is using the atmosphere of a post-Sept. 11 America to preach fear and hatred. They say organizations supporting this group have ties to a branch of science that aims to prove the superiority of whites.

Owatonna, Minn. — Dan Donnelly grew up in Blooming Prairie. He left Minnesota to study law and to later join his uncle's immigration law firm in Washington, DC. But last year his uncle passed away, and Donnelly decided to return home to practice immigration law in Austin. After he moved back last fall, Donnelly says he saw an ad in the paper that caught his attention.

"I'm reading through the Owatonna paper and I see, 'Immigration Coalition meeting.' And I'm, like, 'OK! I gotta go to that!'" Donnelly recalls.

Instead of finding potential immigrant clients at the meeting, Donnelly found a mostly elderly Caucasian crowd. Donnelly says the group's leaders started the meeting by saying they had a list of concerns about how many immigrants were being let into the country. They also announced they weren't anti-immigrant.

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Image Marlene Nelson and Paul Westrum

But Donnelly says when the meeting opened for a group discussion, it became clear to him that wasn't the case.

"People were accusing the minorities of increased crime, not wanting to learn English, causing problems at their places of work," says Donnelly. "Owatonna has a large Somali population. By the end of the meeting, the discussion came up of special registration, and that Somalia is one of places where people are being asked to register from. And it came to the point where someone said, 'Well, they're our enemies.'"

Owatonna resident Marlene Nelson says the group is not anti-immigrant. But, she says, she has legitimate questions about the existence of more terrorist sleeper cells hiding in the U.S.

"Somalia is a terrorist country. So how do we know we don't have Al Qaeda here?" she asks.

Nelson is the leader of the Steele County Coalition for Immigration Reduction. She started the group with help from Albert Lea resident Paul Westrum in November, 2001.

There was a time when we needed people to settle the homestead. We had land to be filled, but we're full. We're full now.
- Marlene Nelson, Steele County Coalition for Immigration Reduction

Since then, a total of about 200 people have attended their quarterly meetings in Owatonna. Westrum says the group's goal is to get people to lobby Congress to reduce immigration to the United States.

"We're not anti-immigrant. We're not anti-immigration. We're pro-American," says Westrum. "We think people who were born here need to be looked at first when there are jobs passed out."

Over the years, Westrum has established groups like this in other states. Several groups are in towns in Minnesota. Westrum says his message is becoming popular with many Americans.

Marlene Nelson says times have changed. She says the need for immigrants has changed, and America shouldn't think of itself as a country of immigrants anymore.

"I get very upset when they say, 'You're an immigrant.' I am absolutely not an immigrant, and if you understand the semantics of the English language, you'd understand that," says Nelson. "We are descendents of immigrants, and there was a time when we needed people to settle the homestead. We had land to be filled, but we're full. We're full now."

Across town, Victor Contreras listens to music while he makes copies in a small office in downtown Owatonna. Contreras was born in Mexico. He's the co-director of Centro Campesino, a non-profit group that assists Hispanic immigrants in southern Minnesota.

Contreras also attended a meeting of the Steele County Coalition for Immigration Reduction. He didn't like what he saw.

"I think the meeting had an atmosphere of hatred," says Contreras in Spanish. "It was a little sad to see your own community like this. They were saying we were taking Americans' jobs, when the reality is that we work in the most labor-intensive jobs around, and we have a positive economic impact on the entire country. They prefer not to see the reality."

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Image Victor Contreras, co-director of Centro Campesino

Minnesota's 1st District Congressman, Republican Gil Gutknecht, addressed the group that evening. Contreras says Gutknecht's appearance disappointed him, especially since Centro Campesino had often requested the congressman attend their events. He says Gutknecht's office never returned his calls. Gutknecht's office didn't return numerous calls from Minnesota Public Radio for this story, either.

Contreras says the Steele County Coalition for Immigration Reduction gets broad support from national institutions with a lot of money.

But according to Marlene Nelson, it's Contreras' group, not hers, which is receiving outside support. She says groups like Centro Campesino receive more state grant money as the population of immigrants increases.

"And that's what I think sets us apart from the other side, is because we're credible, we're not paid. We feel this is very important and very necessary," says Nelson.

Nelson's group may not be paid by national groups, but it does receive training and logistical support from them. So says Devin Berghart, a spokesman for the Chicago-based Center for New Community, an organization that tracks anti-immigrant groups across the nation.

Berghart says Nelson's group is being supported by the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, otherwise known as FAIR.

"They may not providing monetary support right now, but they're providing logistical support, they're providing technical assistance, they're providing legislation being produced, everything except bodies," says Berghart.

They were saying we were taking Americans' jobs, when the reality is that we work in the most labor-intensive jobs around, and we have a positive economic impact on the entire country. They prefer not to see the reality.
- Victor Contreras, Co-Director, Centro Campesino

FAIR wants to overturn new federal law it says has resulted in mass immigration. Although Marlene Nelson says FAIR isn't giving her group money, she admits she flew to Washington, D.C. to receive training from the group. She also receives materials and support from FAIR.

Critics like Devin Berghart say following the trail of support for Nelson's group is important.

According to tax forms from 1979 to the mid-'90s, FAIR received more than $1.2 million from the Pioneer Fund. The Pioneer Fund was established in 1937 to promote the breeding of white people who settled in the original 13 colonies.

Since its inception, the fund has given money to eugenics research. Eugenics is a science that aims to improve a race of people through selective breeding. It's a field that's largely discredited by scientists. Some critics call the practice racist.

The Pioneer Fund has funded research by various eugenics scientists, including the late William B. Shockley. He contended that African-Americans are inherently intellectually inferior to whites.

Pioneer Fund's tax forms show it also gave money to a national immigration reform group, Project USA. Several news outlets, including the Washington Post and the Associated Press, identify Paul Westrum, the co-founder of the Steele County Coalition for Immigration Reduction, as the Midwest representative for Project USA.

Westrum denies this. He says he's filled in for Project USA's president when he couldn't make it to press conferences in the Midwest.

"This happens a lot of times," Westrum says. "Just because you're answering questions for somebody who can't be here, they automatically figure you're some type of representative for them. I don't know if you could say you're a representative of him if you're associated with him on a few things."

Associations are important in this story. Paul Westrum says the Steele County Coalition for Immigration Reduction has no association with national groups promoting eugenics. He and Marlene Nelson say neither of them have received money from such groups. They say their goal is to help people see that immigration reform means immigration reduction.

Back at Dan Donnelly's office in Austin, the immigration lawyer says he remembers when the variety of ethnic backgrounds in this area were celebrated. He says he doesn't get that sense anymore.

"Even though groups such as this, the first thing they tell you is they're not racist. I have to believe that race is an issue," says Donnelly. "I just don't think they had these kinds of meetings when the Czechs moved into town or when the Irish came and settled."

Donnelly says he's not doing anything directly about the Steele County Coalition for Immigration Reduction. Instead, he's teaching school students about accepting people from other cultures.

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