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Immigration proposals reignite debate

ST. PAUL - Gov. Tim Pawlenty spurred the first major legislative debate of 2008 on Monday by offering a revised plan to combat illegal immigration in Minnesota.

The governor's proposals - some of which need legislative approval - prompted Democrats to describe the announcement as election-year politicking on what actually is a federal issue.

Surrounded by supporters and GOP lawmakers, the Republican governor said immigration is an "enormous benefit" to the United States.

"We want to make sure, however, that the system is legal and reasonable and orderly," Pawlenty said during the Capitol news conference.

Pawlenty signed an executive order that puts some of his proposals into effect without lawmakers' approval.

They mainly are focused on improving work among state agencies and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, such as by allowing some state law enforcement officers to enforce customs law.

Also, the executive order instructs the Minnesota Department of Public Safety to check 11 million photos in the state's driver's license database for possible fraud. Pawlenty said he hopes that will "root out" duplication or misuse of licenses.

The legislative proposals include creating a $5,000 fine for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

Pawlenty is encouraging employers to use an Internet-based employment eligibility program to verify an applicant's status.

Pawlenty also wants to broaden anti-forgery laws, toughen human trafficking statutes and increase penalties for identity theft. The governor acknowledged at least part of his proposal faces stiff opposition. He wants lawmakers to end cities' ability to prevent law enforcement from inquiring about a suspect's immigration status.

Still, the governor said he reshaped his proposal for the upcoming legislative session, recognizing Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party lawmakers control the Legislature.

"We believe in each case that they are reasonable and hope the Legislature will consider them in a bipartisan fashion," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said Pawlenty was touting "warmed-over proposals" for an audience beyond Minnesota. "The governor is sharpening his message for the national campaign," he said of Pawlenty, who is a leading supporter of GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.

Democratic lawmakers said Minnesotans should be concerned about state money being spent on an issue that should be dealt with by Congress and the president.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said illegal immigration was the top issue for residents in his legislative district when he campaigned in 2006. Ingebrigtsen, a former Douglas County sheriff, said illegal immigration is a problem but people are reluctant to talk about it openly for fear of being called racist.

Ingebrigtsen said employers he has talked with would welcome Pawlenty's plan.

"In a certain sense, I think they're asking for help," he said.

Pawlenty said illegal immigration is a problem across the country and in Minnesota, but it is uneven.

"There are some communities where the challenge is very concentrated and pronounced," Pawlenty said, citing Willmar and Worthington. "The intensity of concern varies depending on the part of the country and the part of the state, but I just don't think it's credible for anyone to say that illegal immigration is not a concern."

The governor's executive order also directs the Department of Public Safety to hold immigration training meetings around Minnesota with the state's sheriffs and police chiefs associations and the federal immigration agency. The sessions are to be held regionally to update local law enforcement about immigration laws, international gangs and human trafficking.

Illegal immigration is not the most important issue for residents in Rep. Steve Drazkowski's southeastern Minnesota district, he said, but it is a concern for some.

"I think there's more awareness about how our laws are being violated," Drazkowski, R-Wabasha, said. He was among Republican lawmakers who stood with Pawlenty at the Capitol announcement, but said he was not yet familiar with details of the governor's proposals.