Report: Minn. lacking in immigrant protections

Published 7:02 pm Saturday, April 5, 2014

Immigrants and refugees new to Minnesota may find welcoming people at first, but more often than not face incredible barriers to basic services and protections, according to a report released this week.

The report from Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights highlights issues immigrants and refugees face in almost every aspect of society once they come to Minnesota. Those issues stem from marginalization and unease in the workplace and at school to what advocates say are huge basic rights violations in the justice system for immigrants.

The nonprofit spent two years gathering information from hundreds of people across the state, which included public meetings in Austin and 24 other communities.

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“Minnesota is really trying,” said Michelle Garnett McKenzie, director of advocacy for Advocates for Human Rights. “There’s a sense that we want to welcome people.”

Yet Garnett McKenzie said many immigrants and refugees still feel excluded from their communities and are unable to access the same sort of services as longtime residents.

“It’s also not perfect by any means,” she said.

Immigrants and refugees, especially undocumented immigrants, reported being unwilling or unable to call police, seek medical medical care, look for jobs that weren’t low-paid or exploitative, or even get involved in their child’s school because they were afraid of being arrested or ostracized.

The report also highlighted how easy it is for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to deport residents. Though police in Minnesota can’t technically ask for more identification during a police stop, many immigrants told human rights advocates stories of loved ones who were arrested on little to no charges and then thrown in jail, where ICE agents could pick them up and deport them without due process. McKenzie Garnett said those policies don’t prevent law enforcement from potentially violating peoples’ rights.

“The ways that they relied for years on identifying and preventing racial profiling in departments doesn’t work as well when people can be brought to jail and turned over to ICE without being charged criminally,” she said.

Local activists and nonprofit workers say the report’s findings aren’t surprising.

“Working with the community for as long as I have, that does not surprise me at all,” said Jake Vela,executive director of the Welcome Center of Austin and co-chair of Austin’s Human Rights Commission.

Advocates for Human Rights organizers offered several recommendations to help bridge the gap between newcomers and current residents, from making an effort to be more inclusive to bolstering the rights of immigrants and refugees regardless of legal status.

One of the recommendations could come to fruition this legislative session. Legislators are debating a bill that would allow undocumented residents to get driver’s licenses, which could increase public safety as undocumented residents go through driver’s training. Proponents say the bill would also prevent law enforcement profiling during traffic stops.

Garnett McKenzie and local experts agreed more socialization between immigrants and longtime residents would help with some of the more indirect issues immigrants face. Austin’s HRC and other organizations have held large community events and volunteer opportunities like the Taste of Nations to get people from different backgrounds to meet for that purpose.

Yet experts also say more effort should go into protecting immigrants and refugees from poor housing conditions or illegal and exploitative workforce practices. And helping immigrant and refugee families would translate to better results for immigrants students at school.

“It’s really important for all of their basic needs and rights to be met in order for us to educate them,” said Kristi Beckman, integration coordinator at Austin Public Schools.

Advocates for Human Rights spent more than two years compiling the report through 200 individual interviews and public meetings with more than 500 people around the state.