The Lost Tribes of Faribault

Latinos, Somalis, and the American dream in southern Minnesota

On a Tuesday evening in June, Westrum is addressing roughly 50 Steele County Coalition supporters at a senior citizens' center in Owatonna. The assembled throng has a few traits in common: They are old and white, and they believe fervently that immigration is destroying Minnesota. Westrum has brought along some sweatshirts and T-shirts to sell. The word "Freedom" is emblazoned on the front. Across the back is a seemingly contradictory slogan: "Here in America We Speak English." Westrum boasts that more than 500 shirts have been sold so far. "We had a guy that was at the Mall of America and somebody bought the shirt right off of his back," he marvels.

Westrum is followed to the podium by Marlene Nelson, a 59-year-old Owatonna resident. She's a squat, white-haired woman with a bullhorn voice and brash manner. Nelson has twice run unsuccessfully for city council, losing the first time by just eight votes. The topic of her talk tonight is the federal government's H-1B visa program, which allows foreign workers in specialized fields such as engineering or computer programming to work legally in the United States for up to six years. Currently, as many as 195,000 such workers enter the country each year under the program.

Nelson believes that these temporary workers are taking away high-paying jobs from American citizens. She takes pains, however, to couch her argument as pro-American rather than anti-immigrant. "Now, don't blame the people who are here on H-1B," Nelson cautions. "They're being told that America doesn't have the brainpower to do our own work. They're not the villains in this. It's Congress and big business that concocted this idea."

This tone changes near the end of Nelson's speech, when she invokes the specter of California and its ongoing budget crisis. "They've been invaded and they've had too many people coming in," she proclaims. "I think it's a preview of what's going to happen here if we don't do something about it. We really need to get a handle on cutting down the numbers coming in and we need to get Americans back working. They need jobs too."

Anti-immigration advocates like Nelson and Westrum walk a fine line between jingoism and outright racism. Many of the organizations across the country that lobby for curtailing immigration and cracking down on illegal residents receive funding through the Pioneer Fund, a philanthropic organization that was founded by Wycliffe P. Draper, a millionaire businessman who promoted sending blacks back to Africa. The organization also was a primary supporter of research that sought to prove that whites are inherently smarter than blacks.

The Steele County Coalition itself has no financial ties to the Pioneer Fund. The group relies on the volunteer work and donations of its supporters, who are predominently retirees who feel threatened by the vast demographic changes in their part of the state. Their activities are largely confined to writing letters to the editor and collecting petition signatures. No such organization has taken shape in Faribault, but Westrum and Nelson vow to start a group in the near future.

Anti-immigration advocates generally rely on inflammatory statistics to prop up their arguments. They point out, for example, that the foreign-born population in Minnesota increased by 130 percent in the Nineties. While this is accurate, it obscures how small a fraction of the overall population immigrants remain. According to the 2000 census, there are roughly 260,000 foreign-born residents of Minnesota. This amounts to just five percent of the overall population. "They make it sound like batten down the hatches, there's thousands and thousands of immigrants coming to Minnesota. That's just not the case," says Professor Fennelly.

Immigration-reform advocates also consistently portray foreign-born residents as leeches, sucking out tax dollars for social services while contributing nothing in return. However, a 2000 study conducted by economist James Kielkopf for the Center for Rural Policy and Development determined that in south central Minnesota, Hispanic workers contributed $484 million annually to the economy. What's more, he estimated that such residents bolstered the local tax base by $45 million and contributed $76 million to the federal coffers--easily outpacing any government expenditures necessitated by their presence. According to 2002 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, 66 percent of foreign-born residents are employed, compared to 71 percent for native-born Minnesotans.

These statistics are nowhere to be found during the Steele County Coalition meeting. The immigrants discussed this evening are busy committing crimes, living off welfare, and stealing American jobs. Esther Dabill, another of the evening's speakers, is concerned about the possibility that Muslim residents might be permitted to have their driver's license photos taken while wearing head scarves that obscure their faces. Dabill cites a recent Florida case that she heard about on The O'Reilly Factor in which a woman sought to have her picture taken with just her eyes showing. Although the woman was rebuffed by the courts, Dabill is worried that such accommodations might be made in Minnesota. "I went down to the driver's license office and asked the clerk there, 'What happens if a woman comes in with her face covered and that's the way she wants to have her picture taken?'" Dabill tells the audience. "She said, 'We don't let her do it. She doesn't like it, but we make her remove all of it, except she can leave her hair covered.'" The clerk's response did little to reassure Dabill. "They're trying to repeal that in Minnesota," she insists.

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