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It continued this week, when the governor outlined a series of proposals to identify and crack down on illegal immigration in Minnesota. Political observers say Pawlenty is tapping into an issue that concerns many Minnesotans, but he could alienate Latino voters in the process.
St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty hasn't officially announced he's running for reelection, but he's started a debate that's certain to be a campaign issue. The Republican governor wants to crack down on people with fake identification, and penalize employers who hire illegal immigrants. He also wants to create a team of state agents to enforce federal immigration laws, and track illegal immigrants who commit crimes.
Pawlenty said Tuesday he's responding to the concerns of average Minnesotans.
"You have to really be living under a rock to not see that this is a real issue with real consequences and real challenges," Pawlenty said. "And to suggest otherwise is a disservice to the debate."
Pawlenty said his campaign office has done polling on illegal immigration. But he said his proposals are not an election-year tactic.
He points out that he raised the issue during his first campaign for governor in 2002. Then, two weeks before that election, Pawlenty ran a television ad proposing to note the legal status of visiting non-citizens on their drivers' licenses.
The ad said that Zacharias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, learned to fly a plane in Minnesota, and said ominously, "terrorists are here."
"When foreigners apply for a drivers license, we're going to print their visa expiration date right on it," Pawlenty said in the ad. "So at any traffic stop, our police will know if they're breaking immigration laws."
"Tim Pawlenty has to come up with something that's going to scare people into voting for him," said Brian Melendez, the chair of the state DFL Party.
Melendez said Pawlenty is using illegal immigration as a wedge issue to try to mobilize his base of conservative supporters. He compares the issue to gay marriage in 2004.
"It's part of the national Republican strategy to try to drive up turnout among the Republican faithful, and to try to scare voters into voting for an issue that's really not one of their top priorities," Melendez said.
Melendez points out that a St. Cloud State University survey of Minnesotans taken last month didn't list immigration among the top issues facing the state.
But it's definitely a concern for voters, according to Larry Jacobs, who chairs the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. Jacobs said polls show that Minnesotans are anxious about the effects of illegal immigration on jobs, schools and other areas, and Pawlenty is tapping into that anxiety.
"If you put yourself in the shoes of Minnesota workers who are facing layoffs, or have seen their wages stagnate, the idea of the immigrant as the scapegoat, there's a certain resonance to that," said Jacobs.
Jacobs said Pawlenty's proposal is clearly a political move. But while it may resonate with many Minnesotans, it could backfire among Latino voters, according to Alberto Monserrate. Monserrate is president of the Latino Communications Network, which owns a Spanish language newspaper in the Twin Cities.
"I think the anger that I'm seeing right now in the Latino community is like nothing I've seen before in my 21 years I've been in Minnesota," said Monserrate.
Monserrate said he's a Republican who was planning to vote for Pawlenty in 2002, until Pawlenty ran the "terrorists are here" ad. He said if Pawlenty doesn't tone down his rhetoric, he thinks many Latinos will campaign against Pawlenty's reelection this year.
According to the Census Bureau, Latinos made up about 3 percent of Minnesota's population in 2000. While that's not a huge voting block, it could make a difference in a close election.
Some of the Democrats running for Pawlenty's job have already pounced on his proposal, calling it an election-year ploy.
State Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said Pawlenty is trying to distract from real issues. Businessman Kelly Doran said he'll spend next week on Lake Street in Minneapolis, meeting with immigrants who have helped revitalize the corridor.
The chair of the Republican Party, Ron Carey, said Democrats will soon realize that they're bucking public opinion if they try to downplay illegal immigration as a major issue.