It took U.S. President Donald Trump only seven minutes into his campaign rally in Bemidji, Minnesota, last Friday to launch a slew of attacks against the state’s Somali American community. Trump warned that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would “flood [Minnesota] with an influx of refugees from Somalia,” transforming the state into a “refugee camp.” The president called Somali Americans “radical Islamic terrorists” and labeled many in the community “criminals” guilty of rape, assault, and murder.
Somali Americans—who identify as Black, Muslim, and immigrant for the most part—have felt targeted since the first days of the Trump administration, when the freshly minted commander in chief signed a travel ban against seven predominantly Muslim countries and effectively shut down the U.S. refugee program. Since then, he has poured a steady stream of invective at the 60,000-strong Somali American community in the state—especially at Minnesota’s Somali-born Democratic representative, Ilhan Omar—and this month announced the deportation of Somali refugees detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
As Trump enters the final stretch of his reelection campaign in a state that Republicans desperately want to flip in November, Somali Americans in the Twin Cities—ground zero for nationwide protests against racial injustice this summer—fear another Trump term could be a point of no return. A state that voted Democratic in 11 straight presidential elections is suddenly a battleground—making the politically engaged Somali American community a vital bloc four years after Trump won a basket of Midwestern states by razor-thin margins.
“For many of us, this is personal,” said Democratic State Rep. Hodan Hassan, a therapist and social worker who has represented South Minneapolis in the Minnesota House of Representatives since 2019. “This is our livelihood being attacked, our existence being attacked—this is a really important election.”
Omar echoed Hassan’s comments in a tweet on Tuesday, stating that “what happens in the next few weeks could impact us for the rest of our lives, and our children’s lives.”
Since 2016, and especially since Omar’s election in 2018, “Somali Americans have … become a focus point for the hate movement in America,” said Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Minnesota. Omar’s election victory—and her quick rise to national prominence as part of the “squad” of left-wing Democratic legislators—has allowed Trump to use Somali Americans “as a lightning rod issue to build on his base around issues of Islamophobia,” Hussein said.
During Trump’s previous stop in the state, an October 2019 rally in Minneapolis, he called Omar a “disgrace” and an “America-hating socialist” before launching into a broadside against Minnesota’s Somali community. (The president had previously told Omar to “go back” to Somalia.) More recently, after news broke of the administration’s plan to deport Somali refugees—many of whom are suspected to have COVID-19—Trump tweeted that he was “helping Minnesota greatly.”
Advocacy groups say the deportations—which came on the heels of a recent court ruling giving the Trump administration the authority to overturn immigrants’ Temporary Protected Status—were unprecedented. It was another unwelcome shock to the community after the 2017 travel ban halted the reunification of many families split between the United States and Somalia.
Democrats should be able to court Somali votes with ease, even without accounting for Trump’s attacks on the community. Long a progressive bastion in a state that has gone from deep blue to a possible purple this year, Somali Americans generally favor left-of-center positions, such as state-funded education and health care. And the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic carnage have highlighted disparities in health, education, and economic opportunities that affect marginalized communities, further adding to Biden’s appeal among Somali American voters.
“The pandemic has shown us the structural flaws in our system,” said Hassan, the state representative.
But that doesn’t mean Biden is entirely without baggage, particularly when it comes to his role in extending post-9/11 counterterrorism policies broadly seen as targeting Muslim communities.
Hussein said Biden was integral in establishing the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program first piloted in the Twin Cities that recruits community leaders to identify those who may be susceptible to extremist activity. Many allege that CVE unfairly stereotypes Muslims as uniquely dangerous and violent; the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University called the program a “surveillance and intelligence” effort “masquerading as community outreach.”
While Democrats have since distanced themselves from the program, which under the Trump administration has increasingly targeted Muslim, Black, LGBTQ, and immigrant communities, Somali Americans haven’t forgotten who started it.
“We don’t turn a blind eye to the Obama administration,” Hussein said. That includes the Obama administration’s stepped-up use of drone strikes against al-Shabab militants in Somalia, which many view as only contributing to discord and civilian suffering in the country. But even though many Somali Americans are critical of U.S. counterterrorism policies and tend to regard U.S. foreign policy unfavorably—some decrying it as “imperialist”—it’s not nearly as make-or-break an issue as what they see as growing domestic Islamophobia.
“They’re all going to bomb us anyway,” said Abdi Mohamed, a 26-year-old first-generation Somali American in St. Paul. “We might as well vote for the one who’s not going to be mean to us here.”
Somali refugees who immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s after the outbreak of the country’s civil war zeroed in on Minneapolis and St. Paul, where a combination of job opportunities and activist culture promised a hospitable new home. In the past quarter century, Somalis have left a marked imprint on the Twin Cities through their activism and culture.
“The Twin Cities allowed the Somali community … to thrive to a degree to which they’re not able to in other parts” of the country, Mohamed said.
But even as many have achieved political and economic mobility—holding seats in the state senate, city councils, and agency boards for years—Mohamed worries that some members of his community are feeling increasingly dejected with the political landscape. While he’s confident his fellow millennials will turn out for Biden, he fears that older Somali Americans feel more marginalized than ever, while disillusioned younger voters are at risk of turning away from partisan politics, he said. “When you’re constantly snapping the same people … there’s going to be a time when they’re not going to care anymore.”
And Trump’s rally in Bemidji—which claims to be the home of Paul Bunyan—was for some, like Hussein, a sign of a Minnesota that is changing. Beltrami County, where the city is located, in January became the first jurisdiction in the state to vote to prohibit refugee resettlement. Local officials and advocates worry that the Trump rally was a nod of affirmation to growing Islamophobia.
“I don’t want to turn on the TV and [have] my kids listening to a president insulting my ethnic group when we have done nothing except integrate into the American way of life,” Hassan said. “This [election] is do or die.”