Friday, December 8, 2023
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Governor shows softer side toward immigrants

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Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced a series of proposals Thursday designed to assist legal immigrants, after spending several weeks focusing on enforcement of illegal immigration. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
One week after saying he wanted to crack down on illegal immigration, Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed ways to help legal immigrants. The Republican governor's plan includes a new tax credit for immigrants seeking citizenship, and more money for English language instruction and immunizations. Some Latino leaders say the proposals are a good first step.

St. Paul, Minn. — Some Latinos blasted Pawlenty's first round of immigration proposals, which focused on identifying and cracking down on people in the country illegally. The governor's proposals followed a controversial report released by his administration concluding that illegal immigrants cost state taxpayers about $180 million a year.

Pawlenty said at the time he also wanted to encourage legal immigration, and his latest initiatives aim to do that in a limited manner.

"Promoting and encouraging immigration, particularly in categories that are strategically helpful and important to the United States, is a good thing for everybody," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty will lobby Congress next month to increase the number of visas and green cards for students who want to work in high-tech fields. He also wants to increase the number of doctors from other countries willing to work in medically underserved rural and urban areas of Minnesota.

While those proposals will help immigrants in more lucrative fields, Pawlenty says he also wants to provide services for low-income immigrants. He's calling for a tax credit for immigrants seeking citizenship.

"We'd like to lessen the barrier, the financial barrier to that citizenship process by offering a $300 tax credit for citizenship costs, either costs incurred during the application process or for tuition or costs associated with taking English-language lessons," said Pawlenty Thursday.

Pawlenty also wants to create a $3 million grant program to help employers teach English to their employees. And he says the state should spend $500,000 to increase immunization rates and reduce tuberculosis among immigrants.

Several Latino leaders who attended the governor's news conference applauded his focus on immigration. Jesse Bethke Gomez is president of CLUES, a Latino health services provider. He says immigrants, both legal and undocumented, contribute economically to the country, and the nation's laws need to catch up to the reality of what's happening.

"This has elevated the discussion to where it needs to be, about the policies, so that we can provide a means and an orderly manner for people who wish to work and contribute to the betterment of society," said Bethke Gomez.

Bethke Gomez and other Latino leaders view Pawlenty's proposals as a way to start the discussion, but say other ideas should be on the table. Absent from the governor's initiatives is any mention of education for the children of illegal immigrants.

Louis Gonzales is president of the Center for Training and Careers, an English language immersion high school. He says the state should fund college scholarships for the children of illegal immigrants, because he says they represent the future workforce.

"And I hope we don't ignore the young people who are here already, undocumented, that we could do a lot more than the 40, 50-year-olds who are coming into this country illegally," said Gonzales.

Gonzales also supports a proposal to offer in-state tuition rates for the foreign-born children of illegal immigrants who graduate from Minnesota high schools, one item that the governor has opposed in the past.

The measure was removed from a higher education funding package last session, after the legislative sponsors of the measure say Gov. Pawlenty threatened to veto the bill over the tuition provision. Economics professor Bruce Corrie from Concordia University says Pawlenty has some good ideas to help legal immigrants. But he says the governor hasn't offered a solution to the many illegal immigrants who contribute to Minnesota's economy.

"I'm looking forward to hearing what he would have to deal with the larger issues like the guest worker program, like the needs of Minnesota's industry, the demand for these kinds of workers, and pushing also the federal government to be more responsible in coming up with a long-lasting solution to it," said Corrie.

Pawlenty says he supports some type of guest worker program as President Bush has proposed, which would allow foreigners to live and work legally in the U.S. for a period of time. But Pawlenty said he doesn't agree with every aspect of the president's proposal, and there's no mention of the issue among the governor's immigration initiatives.