WASHINGTON – Two traditional pillars of Minnesota’s Republican base, evangelicals and business leaders, are launching campaigns to push the state’s conservative members of Congress to back more liberal immigration laws.
The efforts call for creating a path to citizenship for most of the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, an issue that has long divided Democrats and Republicans. But as President Obama ramps up his push to revise immigration laws, Republican support would be needed to pass any significant legislation in the GOP-led U.S. House.
The fate of those reforms could be determined by Minnesota’s economic and evangelical coalitions and similar efforts around the country that aim to persuade congressional Republicans that change is in the best interest of the GOP and their constituents.
“If you hold a Bible … or own a business, you want a sensible solution to immigration reform,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Immigration Forum. “This is the base of a Republican member of Congress.”
In Minnesota, the groups will focus their most intense lobbying on four members: Republican U.S. Reps. John Kline, Michele Bachmann and Erik Paulsen, and Rep. Collin Peterson, a fiscally conservative Democrat. None responded to interview requests for this story.
The evangelical push on immigration reform is rooted in principle, not politics, Minnesota evangelical leaders say.
“From a biblical perspective, immigration reform and enforcement needs to be done in a humane way,” said Carl Nelson, president and CEO of Transform Minnesota.
Transform, a regional network of more than 175 churches, and the Minneapolis-based Evangelical Free Church of America, an organization of more than 1,000 churches, have joined a national immigration-reform movement, the Evangelical Immigration Table.
As part of their “I Was a Stranger” campaign, the group is encouraging congregations to read and discuss biblical passages about how to treat immigrants. After the November election, the group sent letters to congressional leaders, reinforcing calls for reform.
Evangelicals make up a sizable slice of Minnesota’s electorate that may be tough for politicians to ignore. According to a 2010 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey, 21 percent of Minnesotans identify themselves as evangelicals.
High stakes for business
The state Chamber of Commerce has favored immigration reform for much of the past decade, but the organization has stepped up its efforts to build public support, said Bill Blazar, its senior vice president for public affairs.
Officials have begun meeting with legislators, conveying the message that businesses, from the agricultural and service industries to manufacturing and high-tech, will benefit from laws that make it easier for non-Americans to obtain work visas. The group has reached out to Democrats too, pledging to support a bill introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., that would boost the number of employment visas available to highly skilled foreign workers.
“People have realized how high the stakes are,” Klobuchar said.
In its most recent jobs survey, the state Department of Employment and Economic Development found that Minnesota employers had more than 63,000 unfilled openings last year. Nearly half required some postsecondary education or training.
Klobuchar’s legislation has drawn criticism from employers and trade groups, who argue that opening the door to more non-Americans could siphon away jobs from Minnesota and its workers. Supporters say immigration reform will help companies fill jobs needed to sustain the state’s economic strength.
Blazar said that, unlike the evangelicals, the chamber’s efforts are focused almost exclusively on “the development and growth of the state’s economy.”
The focus is narrow but supporting broad immigration overhaul is crucial, he said: “[Business leaders] understand that their particular problem is most likely to be addressed via a comprehensive reform bill, not as separate legislation.”
The tactic won’t go unchallenged. Opponents already are pushing back, questioning the leaders’ motives and revving up their own lobbying efforts.
“The businesses want the labor and the churches want their pews filled,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA, an Arlington, Va.-based advocacy group that lobbies to reduce immigration levels. “Republicans don’t gain anything by passing amnesty. The bottom line is that the majority of people agree with us.”
But conservative views on immigration are shifting in Congress, at least. Senate Republicans leading the push for reform have taken a more centrist stance in recent months, supporting plans that would tighten border security and toughen enforcement, but also allow a path to legal status for illegal immigrants.
Minnesota is home to at least 85,000 illegal immigrants, according to a 2011 study by the Pew Research Hispanic Center, ranking 26th nationally. That estimate includes only Hispanics. Pinning down the actual number is nearly impossible, said Minnesota state demographer Susan Brower.
Some of the most explosive growth in the state’s immigrant population is happening outside the Twin Cities, in the suburbs and exurbs of Kline’s, Bachmann’s and Paulsen’s districts and the rural towns of Peterson’s region.
Pro-immigration groups forming nationwide aim to support Republicans who fear being targeted on the issue. If past performance is any indication, Minnesota’s lawmakers may prove tough to sway. NumbersUSA, the immigration reduction lobby, grades members of Congress, and it awarded Kline an A+, Bachmann an A and Paulsen an A- based on their statements and votes on immigration policy since 2009. Peterson earned a C.
Since the election, the tone of the discussion on immigration has softened, a reflection of the GOP’s poor performance with Hispanic voters last election, said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.
“The changing electorate is a motivating factor,” Noorani said.
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell •