Feb. 3, 2006, 9:41PM

Immigration a hot campaign issue
Far from Mexico, gubernatorial hopefuls taking hard-line stands

Associated Press

ST. PAUL, MINN. - Gov. Tim Pawlenty is descended from Polish immigrants and has been known to throw around pretend-Polish words like "squatski" (as in: What has the Legislature accomplished?). But lately he has been talking a lot about the Mexican border, more than 1,500 miles from snowy St. Paul.

His administration issued a report in December estimating that as many as 85,000 illegal immigrants live in Minnesota, at a cost to taxpayers of up to $188 million a year.

Democrats and other critics questioned the Republican governor's numbers and his motives. But that hasn't stopped Pawlenty from making immigration a top issue as he seeks re-election.

GOP gubernatorial candidates such as Jim Oberweis in Illinois, Bob Beauprez in Colorado and Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey in Massachusetts have been staking out hard-line positions on illegal immigration. And Democratic Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, facing criticism on immigration in her own re-election bid, is pushing a $100 million border security plan.

Campaign experts say looking tough on illegal immigration can bring in both conservative and working-class votes. But the strategy has brought withering criticism from people who work with immigrants.

Rolled out proposals
In Pawlenty's first campaign four years ago, he promoted a system of tracking immigrants through their driver's licenses, running a TV ad that said, "Terrorists are here." He was criticized for that, too, but won.

Soon after his immigration report, Pawlenty proposed to deputize state agents to enforce federal immigration laws, criminalize possession of fake IDs and ban local ordinances that keep police from asking about immigration status.

Although 95 percent of Minnesotans were born in the United States, the number of foreign-born residents is growing faster here than almost anywhere else, said Katherine Fennelly, a professor who studies immigration at the University of Minnesota.

Experts expect immigration to remain a big issue in states like Minnesota.

"There's no question that the failure of the federal government to create an immigration system that works is creating enormous anxiety in the states," said Benjamin Johnson, director of the Immigration Policy Center.