Minnesota Nice isn’t enough

How does Minnesota treat you? Instead of asking what immigrants do for Minnesota, a new report asks how Minnesota treats immigrants. Minnesota, we have problems.

Moving from exclusion to belonging: Immigrant rights in Minnesota today, released April 2 by the Advocates for Human Rights, looks at Minnesota’s government, civic institutions and long-term residents and asks how well we fulfill our responsibilities toward immigrants, “to ensure that every person is treated with dignity and enjoys freedom, justice, equality and peace.” The researchers went out across Minnesota to conduct hundreds of interviews and dozens of community conversations over the past two years.

At the April 2 press conference at the capitol, Advocates Executive Director Robin Phillips summarized their findings: “Although Minnesota is generally a welcoming place, laws, policies and practices exclude immigrants from full participation in our community and violate their human rights.”

First, there’s discrimination: “some of the nation’s worst racial disparities” as well as discrimination against Muslim immigrant communities. Immigrants and refugees with legal status often “remain ineligible for public safety net programs.”

“No one can share bread with you if you can’t contribute flour”

The full 300-page report includes many quotations from individual immigrants and advocates. From the report:

Getting work permission p. 97-98 —When individuals do finally receive authorization to work in the United States, some reported difficulties related to a gap in their work history, or problems related to the frequency with which the work authorization must be renewed (often yearly). “I’ve had my work permit for one month,” one man explained. “The problem is that I didn’t work for a year. I’m living with people, they are God-sent people, but no one can share bread with you if you can’t contribute flour.”

A staff member at a social service agency explained how repeated delays in renewal of employment authorization documents resulted in hardship for a client: “She got work permission and then it wouldn’t be renewed in a timely fashion, and she would lose her job, so her work history was short and spotty. She couldn’t advocate for herself to stop the firings.”

Recertification and professionals p. 101 — A labor organizer said that it is “amazing to talk to union members. Many used to be doctors, accountants in their country of origin but now are paid minimum wage.”

“It’s hard for educated people,” said a social worker. “Many end up being Personal Care Assistants or Certified Nursing Assistants, working two or three jobs to get by. This becomes cyclical: because they are always working and tired, they can’t get further education or obtain recertification to move up and get out of the cycle. They can’t really transition to bigger or better jobs.”

No complaints p. 104  — For one immigrant interviewee, the simple comparison between the danger and lack of opportunity he escaped in his home country and the safety of life in the United States prevents him from complaining about his work. A refugee man who, prior to civil war in his home country, led an upper-class life and who now works as a parking attendant said, “I have no complaints. When I work, I am working towards my daughter’s future. There is nothing that can make me complain about it. There are a lot of kids out there who don’t have fathers to feed them or access to health care. My job gives us that so we can’t complain.”

Undocumented Minnesotans face even higher barriers – “excluded from the community and in constant fear of deportation, leaving them vulnerable to human rights violations and abuses.”

Both undocumented immigrants and immigrants who have undocumented family members avoid contact with public safety or law enforcement officers, which may leave them as easier targets for crime. That’s a particular barrier for battered immigrant and refugee women. Overall, fear of deportation leads to lack of access to justice, in either criminal or civil courts.

Many of the 500 people interviewed for the report felt positive about economic opportunity in Minnesota, but advocates reported that some immigrant workers “face exploitation by employers who prey on fear of deportation or job loss.” That may mean wage and hour violations, wage theft, lack of safety training and equipment, and even human trafficking.

With 230 languages spoken by students in Minnesota schools, education issues are a big concern of immigrants and educators. Resources for English learner services are important, but participants also said policy changes to reduce bullying, to make schools feel more welcoming for immigrant families, and to address disparities in discipline.

Housing, basic needs and civic engagement are other areas of emphasis in the report — I’ll write more about all of the issues over the next few weeks. One of the biggest issues for all immigrants, however, is the nation’s broken immigration system. The executive summary of the report summarizes:

“The problems experienced by those with legal immigration status include long waits for application processing, difficulties communicating with immigration officials, and discrimination based on religion and country of origin. The situation facing undocumented people is much worse by virtually every marker. Not having legal immigration status means living with a continual, abiding fear that you or a family member could be deported at any moment. This fear undermines the ability of undocumented people to live safely and with dignity and to fully realize other fundamental human rights. Though the problems are fundamentally different between these two groups of immigrant, they all reflect a lack of respect for the right to live with dignity and security.”

[First published on TC Daily Planet]


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