U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers listen to President Donald Trump on Jan. 10, 2019, near the U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station in McAllen, Texas. Credit: White House/Flickr

Like most issues these days, immigration policy drives a wedge between Minnesota Democrats and Republicans, and between urban and rural residents. But large numbers of Minnesotans agree on one thing – the federal government is doing a lousy job at the border.


A recent survey found that a significant majority of Minnesotans were negative, with 42 percent saying the U.S. government has done a “very bad job” dealing with the increased number of people seeking asylum at the border, while another 19 percent said it has done a “bad job.” A generally unfavorable opinion on the government’s performance comes from urban, rural and suburban Minnesotans, and also from 18- to 29-year-olds. Those who identify themselves as Republicans are the only individual group that favors the government’s approach at the border, with 23 percent saying it’s doing a “very good job,” and 37 percent calling it “somewhat good.”


The survey, conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, found that just 5 percent of Democrats believe the government is doing a good job, while 70 percent say its performance is “very bad,” and 19 percent say it’s “somewhat bad.”


The poll was conducted for the Hubbard School by Strategic Research Group. Results are based on a representative sample of 707 completed responses collected Oct. 2 through Oct. 31. The survey was conducted primarily online, with respondents invited to participate with letters sent to their home addresses. The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 3.7 percent. Margins can be larger when breaking down subgroups of the sample. 

Suburban and rural Minnesotans were more positive about the government’s job than were urban respondents, though the majority of each of those groups were more negative than positive. Thirty-three percent of rural respondents and 32 percent of suburbanites were positive, compared with 23 percent of urban residents.


Rural areas tend to be more conservative and less supportive of diversity and multiculturalism than more densely-populated urban areas, said Joe Peschek, a political science professor at Hamline University. An influx of immigrants to a small rural community might be perceived by its residents as changing its character.

But the gap in support for the administration’s policies between rural Minnesotans and Republicans, who are oftentimes seen as synonymous, may be due in part to the role of immigrant workers in their local economy, Peschek said.

“It’s possible that rural voters might think that the current immigration policies are making it difficult for their communities to have an adequate labor force,” he said

Peschek said while immigration was Trump’s signature campaign issue in 2016, it is unclear whether the lower support for his policies in rural areas could be an advantage for Democrats in 2020. A variety of reasons could account for negative sentiment regarding the administration’s record on immigration.

“There are people who might think that the government is just being overly harsh in its treatment of asylum seekers,” he said. “But there could also be people who think that the government isn’t doing enough to turn away asylum seekers, and too many are coming in.”


In the survey, the partisan and urban-rural split were more pronounced on a different question – whether children born to parents who are in the U.S illegally should be granted automatic citizenship. Although such citizenship is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, 77 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of rural Minnesotans answered “no,” that they shouldn’t be granted automatic citizenship.  Of Democrats, 73 percent said they believe such children should be granted citizenship, as did 77 percent of people aged 18 to 29.   


Nikki Miller, 47, of Prior Lake, said she thinks the guarantee of citizenship for children born in the U.S. to undocumented parents can be problematic. 

“My heart says yes [to the law], but I think there are too many loopholes and people are taking advantage of it,” said Miller, who identifies as a Republican-leaning Independent. 

Immigration enforcement

The immigration issue has been prominent and divisive since Trump took office. Republicans campaigned heavily on the issue in 2018. Within days of his inauguration, Trump issued several executive orders in an effort to deliver on his campaign promise of reducing immigration. 

Among them were the construction of the now-infamous wall on the U.S.-Mexico border  and punishments imposed on “sanctuary cities,” or cities that limit cooperation with the federal government on immigration enforcement. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have conducted several raids in major cities across the country, arresting tens of thousands of immigrants. ICE then began separating migrant families and detaining them in facilities along the border in 2017. 

Trump rescinded the separation order last year after widespread criticism of the policy and the conditions in which the migrant children were kept, though the American Civil Liberties Union and others have reported that some separations are ongoing.


Jeff Benyon, 45, of Maple Grove, said he doesn’t support a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, saying the process of building a wall is very expensive and the U.S. is a country created by immigrants.


“Everyone’s an immigrant. If we’re trying to make lives better, we shouldn’t be kicking them out,” said Benyon, who identifies himself as an independent. “If people are seeking asylum from war-torn countries, who are we to say they can’t or shouldn’t do that?”

However, Leman McLean, 77 of Woodbury, said that he’s pleased with how the situation at the border has been handled. 

“President Trump is doing the right thing [regarding] the border. We need a wall and we need to control our immigration. President Trump has the right motives and the right processes to deal with it,” said McLean, who identifies as a Republican. 


Republicans who were surveyed were somewhat split on whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country if certain requirements are met, with 44 percent answering “yes” and 56 percent answering “no.”  Rural Minnesotans also were split, though more positive, at 60 percent yes and 40 percent no. Those margins were closer than on several other immigration issues. In all, 69 percent of Minnesotans answered in favor of such immigrants being allowed to stay.


“If they’ve proven themselves to be law-abiding citizens, and they want to adapt to … the rules and laws of America, I think they should be allowed to stay,” said Terry Fleming of Wright County. 

Fleming, a conservative, said the government needs to work on expediting the process for immigrants who apply for permanent residency. But for undocumented migrants entering the country illegally, the 51-year-old said he supports Trump’s border wall as a preventive measure.

“We can’t just have an open-door policy here — it just doesn’t work for any country,” Fleming said. “I can’t go to any country in the world and walk in there and stay.”


Vicky Merten, 48, from Mountain Iron, said she hasn’t been pleased with how the government is handling the situation at the U.S. and Mexico border.


“We are going to have a whole generation of people living with PTSD … Trump’s wall is a vanity thing, and it’s not needed,” she said.

Merten, who identifies as an Independent but usually votes for Democratic candidates, said she is against family separation at the border, and the conditions children were kept in along the border. 


The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, instituted by the Obama administration in 2012,  grants temporary asylum to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, about 700,000 DACA recipients were living in the country as of August 2018. 


A vast majority of Republicans in Minnesota – 77 percent – who responded to the survey said they think children born to undocumented parents should not automatically be granted U.S. citizenship.  About the same percentage of Democrats answered the opposite way.


Mertens said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country legally if certain requirements are met, and mentioned DACA.


“Here, this is the only life they’ve ever known. It would be cruel and heartless to send them back,” she said.


The Trump administration released a memorandum rescinding the program in September 2017, putting an end to first-time DACA applications a month later. The announcement prompted lawsuits from various immigrant rights organizations and state governments.

Brett Humphries, 54, from Woodbury, said DACA recipients should be allowed to stay to become productive members of society. While he said immigrants should enter the country legally, Humphries believes Trump’s hardline stance on immigration can have an economic impact.

“They’re here doing jobs, contributing to the economy and there’s a lot of industries, like farming, that if we didn’t have foreign workers, they’re not going to survive,” said Humphries, who identifies as an independent. 

In November last year,  the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to uphold the administration’s attempt to end DACA, declaring its reasons as arbitrary. Following an appeal from the Justice Department, the Supreme Court heard arguments in November and a final decision is expected in 2020. 

Immigrant response rate

The journalism school attempted to over-sample Minnesota immigrants to learn of their views of the federal government’s approach to immigration. But too few immigrants responded to the survey to reach a representative sample. 

Luqman Mohamed, 26, of St. Paul, said he thinks many immigrants are “paranoid” about sharing their information due to the current political climate. But he and a small number of others did respond that they have been treated with some hostility at times. Mohamed, who immigrated to the United States from Somalia six years ago, said he was in a drive-thru at a restaurant in August when an older white woman told him to “go back to your country” after a verbal disagreement.

“I just thought it was a little argument over who’s going to go first,” Mohamed said. “It was a shock … I was not expecting that to happen.”

Peschek said response rates for noncitizens and recent immigrants tend to be lower, whether it be in surveys or the U.S. Census, but the latter could have political consequences. Voting districts are determined by population, and an undercount for immigrants, who tend to live in more liberal urban areas, would put Democratic candidates at a disadvantage.

Though Trump’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census probably was a politically-motivated effort, it might be an unsuccessful one, he said.

“The census forms are being printed right now without that question on it,” Peschek said. “I think Trump has indicated he reserves the right to issue an executive order to include it, but it’s getting kind of late for that.”

Mohamed Ibrahim and Katrina Pross are students at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. This story and the surveys cited were funded in part by an endowment in the name of the late Mitchell Charnley, a professor and expert in news reporting and broadcast journalism who died in 1991. 

Contributing ReporterKatrina Pross was a 2019 summer intern for the Pioneer Press.