President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Duluth International Airport in Duluth, Minnesota on Wednesday, September 30, 2020. Credit: Screenshot via C-SPAN

President Donald J. Trump visited the Duluth airport Wednesday night for his third rally in Minnesota this year, just three days after a right-wing video dubiously accused Representative Ilhan Omar and other Somali elected officials of election fraud.

Trump arrived on Air Force One at 8 p.m. and spoke on stage for about an hour. He briefly addressed the “ballot harvesting” —a mail-in ballot practice, often legal, that occurs when a third party collects election ballots from voters and submits them to election judges. This voting method allegedly took place during the Minnesota primary elections in August. 

“What about Omar where she gets caught harvesting?” Trump said of Ilhan. “I’ve been reading these reports for two years now about how corrupt and crooked she is.” 

A packed crowd of more than 3,000 people, some standing in front of Trump’s podium and some behind him, then started to chant: “Lock her up.” It marked an eerie reprise of Trump’s 2016 calls to imprison Hillary Clinton, his Democratic presidential opponent.

The appearance drew sharp responses from Somali American politicians in Minnesota, who highlighted the racism in Trump’s stump speech. They countered by describing the connection Minnesota’s immigrants feel to the United States, their contributions to Minnesota, and their commitment to vote this fall.  

Ilhan responded to Trump’s remarks on Twitter, and said, “not only are refugees welcome in Minnesota, but 78% of my district sent this refugee to Congress.”

Trump’s visit comes during a tumultuous week for a campaign that appears to be faltering. On Tuesday night, Trump delivered a debate performance in which he not only failed to condemn white supremacists, but seemed to call for their mobilization. Some media outlets called it the worst presidential debate in history.

A few days earlier, on Sunday, the New York Times published a bombshell investigative report that concluded Trump had paid almost no federal income tax in 2016 and 2017. Poring over Trump’s tax returns, the story concluded Trump may personally owe more than $300 million on his money-losing properties, hotels, golf courses, and other businesses. 

Seemingly in response, Project Veritas, a “right-wing disinformation outfit,” according to media researchers at Harvard University, released a video report that, without clear evidence, accuses Representative Ilhan Omar’s campaign of collecting mail-in ballots from voters. Trump, who has repeatedly tried to undermine faith in absentee voting and the validity of this year’s election, widely shared the report.  

In Duluth, he wrapped up talk of this issue after just a few minutes, and segued to disparaging statements about refugees in Minnesota.

“Biden will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp,” Trump told the crowd.

It isn’t uncommon for Trump to berate Ilhan and Somali refugees at his rallies. But his attacks in Duluth sounded blunter than usual. Of Minnesota’s refugee population, Trump said they come “from the most dangerous places in the world including Yemen, Syria, and your favorite country, Somalia.” The crowd booed in response to this last country.

In an interview with Sahan Journal after the rally, State Representative Mohamud Noor (D-Minneapolis) said he was taken aback by Trump’s “disturbing” language and his audience’s reaction.

“He’s a racist, really, and racist people will always look for someone to jump on,” Mohamud said. “Those who are around him need to be able to tell him: We can’t stand with somebody who persistently continues to use fear.”

Mohamud said it’s clear his constituents will cast their votes for Biden. (An MPR News/Star Tribune/KARE-11 poll last week showed Biden holding a 6 point lead over Trump.) 

When he first won office in 2018, Mohamud Noor became the second Somali politician to hold state office in Minnesota. In the last four years, political interest has blossomed among Minnesota’s African immigrants. In a recent tally, Sahan Journal counted some 50 candidates from African immigrant backgrounds seeking elected office in Minnesota.

‘We are Black, we are immigrants, we are Muslim’

Minnesota has had a long history as a state that welcomes immigrants. More than 480,000 immigrant residents in Minnesota make up 8.6 percent of the state’s population. Since 2005, about 33,000 refugees have relocated to Minnesota.

Under Trump, however, refugee resettlement has drastically declined since 2016. Trump capped the number of refugees settling in the United States at 18,000 last year—the lowest cap since the refugee program was created in 1980. More than 2,000 refugees resettled in Minnesota in 2016. Last year, only 727 were admitted in the state.

“Since coming into office I have reduced refugee resettlement by 85 percent,” Trump boasted at a Minneapolis rally in October 2019.

Refugees from Somalia made up the highest number of refugee arrivals in Minnesota, with over 13,000 arrivals in the last 15 years, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Trump commended his own administration for “keeping terrorists, extremists and criminals” out of Minnesota. “We’ve ended the refugee influx into your state. You were one of the most hard-hit states for whatever reason.”

Omar Fateh, a 30-year-old who won a Democractic primary election in August for the state Senate, said Trump is targeting the Somali community because he doesn’t have a real platform to run on. That is, any platform other than fear and division. It didn’t work in 2016 and it won’t work in 2020, Omar said.

“The Somali community checks a lot of the boxes that the president seems to be against: We are Black, we are immigrants, we are Muslim,” Omar said. “Those are all communities that the president has targeted.”

The Trump administration announced Wednesday that the proposed cap for refugees admitted in the United States in 2021 will be set at a record low of 15,000.

Omar Fateh offered a far brighter account of the contributions refugees have made to Minnesota. 

“We are business owners, teachers, engineers, doctors. We have really helped energize and keep the economy booming,” Omar said. “Immigrants as a whole have really benefited the state of Minnesota.”

According to the American Immigration Council, immigrant workers in Minnesota composed 11 percent of the labor force in 2018. Immigrant-led households paid $2.9 billion in federal taxes and $1.5 billion in state and local taxes that same year. Another study from New American Economy said there are over 18,000 immigrant entrepreneurs in Minnesota—some of whom came to the state as refugees.

What may be most troubling to the Trump campaign is the impact these immigrants may hold at the ballot box. Omar and Mohamud have no doubt that the Somali community, and other immigrant communities, will turn out at the polls this year.

“If the Somali community didn’t show up in 2016, then Trump would have won Minnesota,” Omar said. “It’s critical that we come out in large numbers this time just to show what we are about. We are about community, we are about preserving our diversity, and we are standing up for our neighbors.”

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...