GOP gubernatorial hopeful Jeff Johnson will fight a Hennepin County sanctuary

It's not clear what his constituents really think, but Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson is clearly against protecting undocumented immigrants.

It's not clear what his constituents really think, but Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson is clearly against protecting undocumented immigrants. Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson is used to being the lone dissenter, the holdout contrarian, the black sheep of the Hennepin County Board whose frequent "nays" register the conservative counterpoint for the record, but often end up being overruled.

The District 7 commissioner once tried and failed to exclude Planned Parenthood from the rest of the Human Services and Public Health contract. He voted against chipping in for Minneapolis to build out its bike-sharing program Nice Ride. And he frequently opposes light rail spending.

But when it comes to naming Hennepin County a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, Johnson said there is strong agreement in his constituent cities -- including Champlin, Maple Grove, Medina, Northwest Plymouth, and Rockford -- not to do it.

The commissioner issued a survey to some 3,000 people in his district asking, "Should local units of government establish 'sanctuary policies' that prohibit law enforcement from working with federal immigration officials?"

Eighty-three percent of respondents said no, he announced in his October newsletter.

"Now, these results should be taken with a grain of salt, but they do speak volumes," Johnson wrote. "We find ourselves in the midst of a challenging political environment. Rather than ignoring topics of controversy, it is important for us to have the tough conversations and to take action on areas of agreement."

Although Johnson didn't include how many people actually responded to his survey, he later admitted it was only about 165.

Roxanne Smith, Champlin resident and social justice coordinator for the Catholic church St. Joseph the Worker, says she found the results highly suspect. St. Joseph's, which has been discussing conversion into a sanctuary parish, has about 2,500 members who may disagree that the northwest suburbs don't want to protect undocumented residents.

Smith says she knows of a young woman who was raped, yet hasn't reported the crime because her rapist threatened to tell police she is undocumented.

"I believe that we're all safer, all of us in our communities, if ICE does their thing and the local police enforce local laws," she says. "If people are afraid to go to the police for help, the police won't be able to do what they're supposed to be doing for us."

Johnson's survey is perhaps more a reflection of his own opinion. He strongly believes that immigration laws that are on the books should be enforced, and county employees should help any way they can. And should any other commissioner propose a sanctuary policy for the county, he said he would have no problem arguing his minority view.

That's good to know about a guy with a chance to become Minnesota's next governor. Johnson lost to Mark Dayton in 2014 by about six points. His second bid for the office recently picked up an endorsement from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who received more votes than any other presidential candidate in the Minnesota Republican primaries.

Despite much effort behind the scenes, no sanctuary rules for Hennepin County have been introduced. Though the board could pass a resolution prohibiting county services like probation and health and human services from revealing residents' immigration status, Sheriff Rich Stanek maintains a close relationship with ICE. As long as he chooses to share jail data with Immigration, coordinating phone calls between inmates and federal agents, Hennepin County could never be a real sanctuary.

Instead, District 3 Commissioner Marion Greene is working on an upcoming resolution to provide services to people facing deportation orders.