Scott Jensen, a physician and former state senator, is running as the Republican candidate in the 2022 gubernatorial race against Governor Tim Walz. Credit: Gov. Tim Walz campaign (left) and Scott Jensen campaign (right)

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Minnesota’s track record of resettling refugees from around the world could change after the November general election, with the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor appearing to diverge dramatically on immigration.

The gap between the two candidates surfaced after Republican candidate Scott Jensen gave a radio interview on July 7 in which he said taking in immigrants without proper resources would be “undercutting so much of Minnesota’s fabric of life.”

After fielding emails, texts, and phone calls from Sahan Journal, Jensen’s campaign declined to comment about his remarks and broader immigration platform. Democratic Governor Tim Walz, who is running for reelection, criticized Jensen and said he supports immigration.

“He’s 100 percent wrong morally, and he’s 100 percent wrong economically and culturally,” Walz said of Jensen and the role of immigration in Minnesota. “Walk down the streets of Worthington, Willmar, Mankato, or St. Paul, and you see that it’s the fabric of our life.”

Jensen made his statements while talking about his campaign with former Minnesota congressman Jason Lewis on the Twin Cities News Talk radio show last month. Lewis asked Jensen about immigration at about the 40:22-minute mark of their 42-minute conversation.

“A great debate over time is whether local government in Minnesota should be forced by the state—or the feds for that matter—to accept refugee after refugee, which taxes their local services from education to hospitals even to corrections,” Lewis said in the interview. “Or whether we believe in local government and they should have the prerogative. What do you think?”

Jensen, a physician and former state senator, said states aren’t mandated to accept federal orders to resettle immigrants.

“If we’re going to reach out and take someone in, we have to be able to care for them. I don’t care if you’re talking about an orphan child or a refugee. This is absolutely wrong,” Jensen said. “We are literally undercutting so much of Minnesota’s fabric of life, and the government—the federal government—has no right to do that.”

“And they were, they were,” Lewis said, adding that the United States has a “wide open border, which the Democrats seem to like in Minnesota. They wanted to allow non-citizens to vote in Minneapolis.”

“It’s absolutely astounding the way in which our world is changing and the speed with which it’s changing,” Jensen said.

The governor plays a crucial role in maintaining the state’s immigration policies on both a symbolic and legislative level. The state of Minnesota has accepted more immigrants per capita than any other state in the United States between October 2016 through September 2017. Minnesota is home to 13 percent  of refugees in the nation, and 2 percent of its total population.

Recently, the state set up a robust community-based response to resettle 1,200 Afghan refugees. The state is preparing to accept an increase in Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. 

“This myth—and to be very honest it is meant to discredit immigrants—that they are using public services and not paying back is absolutely false,” Walz said. “It’s proven by the data that we know that the community pays in and gives far more back than they take out.”

Steve Patterson from the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis party, James McCaskel of the Legal Marijuana Now party, Hugh McTavish of the Independence-Alliance party, and Gabrielle Prosser of the Socialist Workers party are also running for governor in the November 8 election.

Voters in Minnesota last elected a Republican governor in 2006, when then-Governor Tim Pawlenty won a second term. 

Counting immigrant contributions to the state economy

Minnesota is home to the largest populations of Somali and Hmong people in the United States. It also holds the largest concentration of Liberians as well as Karen immigrants, who come from Myanmar.

New American Economy, a bipartisan immigrant research group, reports that immigrants in Minnesota paid $4.8 billion in taxes and had a spending power of $12.6 billion in 2019. There are just under 20,000 immigrant entrepreneurs in the state who bring in a total income of $411.7 million. 

More than 96 percent of working-age refugees in the state are employed.

City agencies in Minneapolis and St. Paul use this kind of data to develop resources and support services for immigrants and refugees. Michelle Rivero, director of Minneapolis’ Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, said immigrants and refugees compose over 15 percent of the city’s population.

“Immigrants and refugees are essential to the economy of the city of Minneapolis,” Rivero said. “Their contributions span a variety of economic activity—from entrepreneurial activity to construction workers to people working in healthcare and other industries. We would not be the city that we are without the active participation of immigrant and refugee residents.”

Edmundo Lijo works on immigrant and refugee affairs for the city of St. Paul through the city attorney’s office. In St. Paul, about 20 percent of the population is foreign born.

“We rely on those individuals to help with loss of population. We rely on those individuals to come and build businesses, to work, to become part of this community,” Lijo said. “They bring so much to us culturally, economically, civically.”

Rivero and Lijo spoke to Sahan Journal broadly about the role of immigration in the state; neither spoke specifically about the two gubernatorial candidates.

Governor’s role in immigration

On his campaign website, Jensen outlines his campaign priorities as combating crime, fighting inflation, lowering energy costs and gas prices, protecting women, and encouraging rural prosperity. The site does not address immigration as a priority.

In an interview with Sahan Journal, Walz said he will support immigrant communities if re-elected. Immigrants need immediate support in housing, education, and healthcare, he said, adding that integrating immigrants into the economy allows them to thrive.

“We have strong support systems in state government, making sure that financial assurances, are there, but more importantly, making sure that new Minnesotans feel welcome,” Walz said. “Our immigrant community [is] incredibly hard working. They’re contributing to the economies, and that’s not just the Twin Cities.”

Walz said the governor plays a powerful role in making immigrants feel welcomed. At the same time, he said, he works with the state legislature to create affordable housing, down payment assistance programs, and translation services. 

“I don’t think you can underestimate that the person who holds this job sends a very strong message by just how they talk about our immigrant communities,” Walz said. “If it’s one of welcoming, if it’s one of partnership, if it’s one of optimism for the future—that sends a really strong message both to the community, but also to the state as a whole.”

Last August, resettlement agencies initially reported that they had the capacity to resettle 65 Afghan refugees and their families in Minnesota. But as the state ramped up their response and worked with community organizations, that capacity grew quickly. In the last year, 1,200 Afghan refugees arrived in the state.

The state has received 300 Ukrainian refugees under humanitarian parole, a federal emergency program that grants certain foreign nationals entry to the U.S. KSTP reported in July that 847 Ukrainians have applied to resettle in Minnesota.

 Michelle Rivero, the Minneapolis immigration policy head, connects these ongoing waves of immigration to Minnesota’s identity. .

“Immigration is uniquely tied to the state of Minnesota,” Rivero added. “When we think about our history, it is inextricably combined with immigrants and immigrant stories.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.