Saint Paul, MN - Amidst the flurry of budget cuts hastily pushed through on July 19 and signed on July 20 on the 20th day of the state government shutdown, immigrant rights activists claimed one victory and one defeat amidst the chaos.
The victory is that the Secure Communities deportation program was not included in the final Public Safety/Judiciary budget bill. This makes Minnesota one of the states that continues to refuse to implement the controversial fingerprint-sharing deportation program that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Obama administration are trying to implement nationwide. It was recently revealed that the program has a behind-the-scenes push from the FBI, which is hungry to universalize such programs that gather biometric data on as many people as possible.
The absence of the Secure Communities program from the Public Safety bill was a reversal from the version of the bill that passed at the end of the legislative session in late May. About a week before the Minnesota legislative session ended, Sen. Ortman (R) snuck the deportation program into SF1143, an omnibus bill, with no debate, discussion or committee hearings, and it quickly passed with an unanimous 57-0 vote. Then just before the end of the session, Secure Communities was transferred into SF958, the Public Safety bill, which the legislature passed just before the session ended on May 23. However, on May 24, Governor Dayton vetoed SF958, along with all the other budget bills.
According to Anh Pham of the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee (MIRAc), “Preventing Secure Communities deportation program from being implemented in Minnesota is a victory. Because of this, there will be fewer families torn apart over the next year. The No More Deportations campaign will continue working to stop the other deportation programs that are already separating families in Minnesota. Even one separated family is too many.”
The setback for immigrant rights this session is that the national E-Verify program was inserted into the State Government Finance bill. The new law says that any company with contracts with the state of Minnesota over $50,000 will need to use E-Verify to screen their workers for immigration status. In 2008 Governor Pawlenty implemented this same policy administratively through an executive order. When Dayton became governor last year, he decided to let this and another of Pawlenty’s anti-immigrant executive orders expire without renewing them. According to Anh Pham, “It was a step forward when Gov. Dayton let Pawlenty’s anti-immigrant executive orders expire. Now it’s a step back to have the unreliable and unfair e-verify program put into law in Minnesota. The Republican leadership and Governor Dayton shouldn't have done this.”
Battle over Cuts and Taxing the Rich Led to Shutdown
At the end of the regular legislative session in May, Governor Dayton’s vetoed all the Republican-crafted budget bills that contained severe budget cuts with no new revenue. Dayton instead favored an approach of keeping some budget cuts, but cutting less severely by raising taxes on the richest 2% of Minnesota. The Republicans wouldn’t budge from their all-cuts and ‘no new taxes’ pledge, protecting the richest 2% of Minnesotans from paying even a tiny bit more in taxes while the budgets for education, transit, health and human services programs are gutted. This impasse led to the state government shutdown on July 1.
In mid-July Gov. Dayton finally gave in to the obstinate Republicans, announcing he would accept their June 30 budget proposal made right before the shutdown. This led to a sudden and furious push by the governor and the Republican legislative leadership to hastily rewrite all nine budget bills behind closed doors, without debate or time for public review, at the special legislative session that Gov. Dayton initiated on July 19 with only a couple hours notice.
The Health and Human Services bill has severe cuts. Among other things, $58 million are taken from TANF funds designated for poor people. According to Linden Gawboy of the Welfare Rights Committee, "TANF is supposed to be used for poor families, but because they didn't tax the rich, they had to steal from the poorest of the poor.” Education, transit and other key services are not spared either.
One Front in the State-by-State Battle Over Immigrant Rights
In the absence of national immigrant rights legislation, battles are being fought state-by-state. Over the last few years, deportations that separate immigrant families have increased around the country to levels not seen even under the Bush administration. Secure Communities is a program that is responsible for a large part of this increase in deportations. States opt in to the ICE program, and then force counties to connect booking information from county jails to a federal database used by both ICE and the FBI. ICE claims that Secure Communities focuses on deporting “dangerous criminals”. But over 70% of the people deported under Secure Communities have not been convicted of any crime or have only been convicted of minor traffic-type offenses.
While harsh anti-immigrant laws are being passed in states like Arizona, Georgia and Alabama, immigrant rights activists have struck back against repressive ICE programs in other states. Specifically ICE and the Obama administration are on the defensive around the country about the Secure Communities deportation program. Illinois, Massachusetts and New York announced they want to get out of the program. California’s Assembly voted to allow it’s counties to opt out if they want to. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus came out against it as well as many other congresspeople. Dozens of counties and cities around the country have also tried to opt out of Secure Communities.
In response, ICE told states and counties that they can not opt out, but this just caused more states and counties to say they don’t want to participate. In damage control mode as more states abandoned ship, the Obama administration finally announced in mid-June that they would make minor reforms to the embattled program. But most activist groups see this as too little too late. Dozens of immigrant rights and civil liberties organizations jointly signed a letter to ICE director John Morton on July 20 condemning their inadequate review and reforms of Secure Communities, and instead demanding that a moratorium be called to halt the program entirely.