In their own words: Mayor Tom Stiehmby Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
MAYOR TOM STIEHM:
And you can see, there's Orientals and black kids, you know we've got everything. As a matter of fact, it kind of surprises me to see as many black kids. Well, we've got everything. But they're primarily Hispanic, as you can see.
I think every year it gets easier and easier for people to accept. People got mad at me because I said we need to be honest about it, and I got in and a lot of these people said, you know, 'Well, you didn't say what you were going to do, you didn't do what you said you were going to do.' I said, 'No, I did exactly what I said I was going to do. You just heard what you wanted when I ran. I never said I was going to have an effort to kick people out. I said I was going to do whatever is best for Austin. And it's easy to see what's best for Austin.'
You can feel how you want about it, about immigrants, about kicking them out, that isn't the answer. If the government wants us to do it, we'll do it when everybody else does it. But you know that's not what's going to be what happens...because we need workers in this country, you know.
A lot of what I get from people, 'Well, they're driving wages down.' Well, they probably are, but if you want people to work at Quality Pork, they're paying $12.50 an hour, if you want people from town to go work over there, you're probably going to have to pay $18, $19/hour. Then the price of your bacon and everything is going to go up. Well, they want the people to work for that price but they don't want that kind of price for food. And I'm not sure we'd have the workers even then, if they did that good.
There's no doubt the country needs workers. There's no doubt that if you put too may in, any of them will probably going to drive wages down some. That's the government's responsibility to find a balance there.
It's got to be hard because they're going to catch it from either side. They're going to have to find a balance.
Basically, what the big problem is, we've been let down by the government because it's just an area that they're finding hard to deal with, so they're doing nothing. Absolutely nothing. And you beg them to do something and they say 'Ok, we'll get on it.' But look what happened with healthcare. I probably it's going to be the same thing with immigration, I wouldn't doubt it.
I think they're going to have to do something. When I first got in, I went to some of these conferences with mayors, mayors in Minnesota, 85 different mayors, and at that point, I didn't know what we were going to do in Austin or what my policies were going to be.
None of them were trying to kick the immigrants out. They were all trying to find ways to integrating them into their city without provoking the rest of the population.
See, when I moved here, I was from West Allis, which was a suburb of Milwaukee, and west Allis was pretty much a white city. So right now, this isn't the world that I grew up in. This is a whole new world. I thought it was Austin, and then I stopped in different cities and saw that it's pretty universal.
I went to this conference and they had a roundtable discussion and they had one group up there talking about immigration. And I went there and the moderator said this is a problem that some of us are going to have to face in the future, and I thought 'face in the future?' You know, we're facing it right now in Austin. We've been dealing with it for 10 years, 15 years.
(getting in car)
But, we'll be ok. I think it's my job to help. (door slamming shut)
I said, heck. I could be the mayor that helps the transition and helps work this problem out. And it turns out, hopefully, that what my focus is. I think it's more immigration than anything else.
We have LGA and a lot of budgetary, financial things, too, but I still think the main problem, the city was doing fine financially before I got there. They'll be doing fine when I leave. But immigration, they weren't. There were some big issues on immigration.
A lot of people were angry and confused and scared. And I think it's like anything else. The best thing to do is to inform people. That's the best way to eradicate fear. People fear change and if you inform them, you tell them what to expect, and they know what's out there, then they're not as fearful.
MPR's ELIZABETH BAIER:Would you say it's your top priority?
Yeah, I think so. Right now, it would be hard to say finances isn't the top priority because the state's taking so much money away from us and the economy is in such a spiral right now. But I would say between the economics and immigration. The difference is, economics would figure itself out if I wasn't here.
Where, because of my background in law enforcement and stuff, I think I can have an effect on the immigration.
BAIER: Do you ever talk to, aside from the leaders in the immigrant community, just some of the people on the street?
They're scared. I went to church, to Queens, and we talked to the group before church and the next week I had a bunch more stuff to give out, and I ended up going to church there. We were the only non-Hispanics in the church.
And I think they're very leery. And the first, if you go out into any kind of a public setting within five minutes, somebody will come up to you and say, my husband's in jail, can you get him out of jail?
What's he in jail for? For false identity. There's not much I can do on that. And of course, I know the people that are telling me that. You know, they all have false papers. And the sister, she got mad at me because I said, I talked to one of these clerical groups, and I said we should be focusing on the criminal aspect. And she said, 'Well, you were in the paper, saying that we should arrest them all for forgery.'
And I meant, when they're forging checks and stuff, and she thought I was saying we should arrest every one of them because they all have forged documents. I said, 'Well, I know they all have forged documents, but what I'm talking about is the check. You know, we're not going to have a push on the documents side of it. Because every one of them, you could get basically, 90 to 95 percent of the Hispanics in town, probably have fake identification.