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Report offers revealing stories about lives of Minnesota’s immigrants

The study finds Minnesota’s 350,000 immigrants face discrimination, exclusion from the larger community and fear.

The Advocates for Human Rights' Robin Phillips says the report shows that current laws, policies and practices “exclude immigrants and refugees from full participation in our community and violate their human rights.’’
Courtesy of The Advocates for Human Rights

A new report about Minnesota’s 350,000 immigrants and refugees tells some revealing stories about their daily lives.

It shows that in some ways the state is a welcoming place but in many others it sports a wide cultural divide and falls dramatically short in providing basic protections.  

Two years in the making, the 300-page study by The Advocates for Human Rights asserts that Minnesota immigrants face discrimination, exclusion from the larger community and fear, all of which undermine basic human rights.

Called “a needs assessment” by Robin Phillips, who heads the Minneapolis-based nonprofit, the report describes high levels of poverty (among immigrant families it is 17 percent) as well as racial disparities in employment, health, civic engagement and education outcomes, though acknowledging too that some immigrants are doing very well.

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The study also points to religious discrimination, particularly for Muslim immigrants.

Phillips said the report shows that current laws, policies and practices “exclude immigrants and refugees from full participation in our community and violate their human rights,’’ including federal polices such as what she called the “meager provision” of 90 days of assistance for refugees fleeing conflicts and persecution and the fact that asylum seekers must wait six months after applying for asylum for a work permit.

“The overall take away for me is that while Minnesota is a great place to live and it is sought out by people…we allow blind spots in our system to exclude people,’’ said Michele Garnett McKenzie, the nonprofit’s director of advocacy and who supervised the report.

McKenzie said the report, “Moving from Exclusion to Belonging: Immigrant Rights in Minnesota Today” and released this week, signals the need for policy changes, including immigration reforms, drivers’ licenses for the undocumented, the need for a living wage and better education about immigration and citizenship processes.   

The stuff of a semester-long public-policy course, the work reflects conversations with 500 people from all around Minnesota.

In it we read about the fear of police among undocumented persons, how cultural differences lead to bullying in public schools, how those who speak little English must work multiple low-wage jobs to support themselves (leaving no time for English language classes) and how some immigrant workers are forced to work seven day-weeks and 12-hour days or lose their jobs.  

Take these stories, from the report:

“I’ve lived here for almost 21 years, and I still feel like a foreigner. I am still a Somali woman. I am not an American Somali woman…because everywhere you look, there is separation. There are white schools, and black schools, and Somali schools, and Muslim schools. But the only ones that ever seem to do well are the white schools.”

A public defender reported, “People are afraid of the police. We see a lot of people who are victims of crime because they will not call the police. People are so afraid of detention.”

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One community organizer described a restaurant in which people were working twelve hours, seven days a week, but were paid a fixed bimonthly paycheck that worked out to $4 an hour. “Workers were threatened with a frying pan and a knife. We organized and got back wages,” he said.

A Latino community member …[said] “I have heard many parents say that this ‘Minnesota nice’ doesn’t help us, because in our countries they are very direct and say: ‘your daughter needs to bring her homework,’ but here all they say is: ‘she’s so bright and good,’ but then she receives bad grades.”

The study, which includes material from 200 one-on-one interviews as well as group conversations in 25 communities around the state, also cites specific instances of alleged profiling by police, including this:

…[A] public defender described an incident where a Latino individual parked his car and was walking toward a restaurant when he was asked for identification by a patrol officer. The officer made no allegations of any violation of motor vehicle operation or suspicion of any criminal activity. When the individual failed to produce a valid Minnesota driver’s license he was arrested and booked into the county jail and turned over to ICE for deportation.

Immigrants talk about the scarcity of legal representation and interpreters for those who do not speak English.  

In the schools people talk of long-documented disparities in academic achievement and “disparate rates of discipline among certain racial or ethnic groups.”

Fresh ideas surface in the report, including this: A school district administrator in southern Minnesota  suggested “a statewide education plan for the 16- to 22-year-old immigrants lacking a connection to life in America.”

McKenzie said the report should fuel community conversations around the state and at the Legislature for years to come.

(The Blandin Foundation, The Minneapolis Foundation and the Andrus Family Fund provided support for the study. The Minneapolis Foundation provides sponsorship support for Community Sketchbook.)