South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has attracted a lot of attention for a tweet she fired off last week declaring that this state would not be accepting any illegal immigrants from the southern border, and finished it off by telling refugees looking for asylum to “call me when you’re American.”
This ignited heavy criticism, and deservedly so.
But let’s look at some of the positive aspects of this (for lack of a better word) incident.
For starters, it confirms for us what the agenda is for Noem. Her words were not statesmanlike. Rather, they feel politically calculated to rev up a Republican base that still aligns wholeheartedly with former President Donald Trump. The governor is one of many GOP politicians with loftier aspirations trying to use such bravado to tap into that energy.
Her tweet last week also conveniently reveals a political U-turn. A Dec. 19, 2019, letter she sent to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said she was willing to accept illegal immigrants under an executive order from Trump. “For the communities that want to welcome these refugees, I support giving them that opportunity,” she said then. Now, she writes in her latest weekly column (which is on this page today), “When President Biden started asking states to take some of these illegal immigrants and house them, I told him ‘No way’ before he asked South Dakota. Those illegal immigrants can call us when they’re an American. I wanted to make sure he got that message loud and clear.” She joins the Republican governors in both Nebraska and Wyoming in refusing to house illegal immigrants, although the latter two didn’t draw the “call me when you’re American” line.
On a related note, the tweet (and her column) also give us a clear idea of what she believes the base she is appealing to looks like and how it thinks. You can draw your own conclusions on that.
The governor also shows a lot of courage with that tweet.
It takes a certain amount of guts, after all, for the governor of a state with nine Native American reservations — filled with people whose ancestors were here before white settlers ever dreamed of coming to these plains — to tell outsiders to come back “when (they) are American.” (However, you COULD argue that many white families here have been Americans a lot longer than those indigenous people, since Native Americans weren’t granted U.S. citizenship until 1924.) She’s unafraid to draw distinctions on which immigrants she deems are acceptable and which are not.
The tweet also offers a bold revision of America’s soul, since this is a nation that has been built by immigrants seeking new homes in this country. She appears eager to embrace a different blueprint.
She is also showing fortitude to take this stand despite what it could mean to South Dakota’s financial picture.
Migrant/foreign workers have become an important component to the state’s economy. Migrant workers are vital to the agricultural economy here and across the country. Also, the American Immigration Council reported last year that 16% of those working in South Dakota’s manufacturing sector were immigrants, as were 11% of workers in healthcare support occupations. According to the Migration Policy Institute a year ago, 58% of all meatpacking jobs in the state were filled by immigrants.
These workers are becoming an essential facet of our economy. In 2018, there were more than 35,000 immigrant workers — or about 4% of the population — in South Dakota, about two-thirds of whom were not naturalized citizens.
Locally, Yankton is relying increasingly on such laborers, and these are not people “stealing” jobs from Americans. They are filling jobs that would otherwise not be filled, empty slots that could cost companies a lot of money and, consequently, local tax bases some serious revenue.
Noem appears unafraid to rattle those economic pillars.
Beyond these things, there is little good that can spring from Noem’s Twitter outburst, at least for this state, which she embarrassed in the process. However, it probably serves her own purposes well enough, getting her national exposure and forcing everyone from human rights activists to editorial writers to talk about it.
And that’s what politics is all about, unfortunately.