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Minneapolis becomes latest city to create office dedicated to serving immigrant and refugee residents

Community activists and nonprofit leaders serving immigrant and refugees say the city’s effort to create the office is a step in the right direction.

David Rubedor, the city’s director of Neighborhood and Community Relations, is currently in the process of hiring a director for the new office.
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi

For years, whenever city staffers in Minneapolis wanted to address immigration-related concerns or organize community outreach events for foreign-born residents, they almost always turned to the same approach: They formed a task force.

Though the city found a way to make it work, said David Rubedor, the city’s director of Neighborhood and Community Relations (NCR), some city leaders have long wanted to rethink the effectiveness of that approach.

During one such meeting a little over a year ago, in fact — around the time President Donald Trump came to power promising to deport undocumented immigrants and withhold federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities — Rubedor and Civil Rights Department Director Velma Korbel found themselves talking about how the city could better meet the needs of its immigrants and refugee communities.

“We value immigrants and refugees in the city, but we also tend to be in a reactive state,” Rubedor remembered saying to Korbel. “Let’s move …  into a much more proactive agenda.”

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That proactive agenda has resulted in the creation of a new city office: the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA), which is meant to do exactly what it sounds like — focus on developing policies and programs that support Minneapolis’ immigrant and refugee populations.

Despite its name, however, OIRA isn’t actually an office. It’s one position based inside the NCR department. (The department is currently in the hiring process, which is scheduled to conclude by mid-May.)

Minneapolis’ action comes after dozens of other cities — including Seattle, Denver, Los Angeles and New York City — also designated specific offices and full-time advocates to handle the growing challenges that immigrants and refugees continue to experience.

As in other cities, officials here recognize the significant role city government can play in supporting and advocating for its foreign-born residents, even when the federal administration has the sole authority to regulate immigration.

“We’re limited on what we can do on the federal level, but there are a lot of things that we can do on the local level,” Rubedor noted. “We can advocate and we can actually put positions out around what’s happening on the federal level.”

Indeed, the director — who will be paid between $95,000 and $112,000 — will be tasked to work closely with multiple departments within the city as well as the mayor and council members to develop policies and programs that support immigrants and refugees.

The director will also collaborate with nonprofit organizations in the Twin Cities metro area and the city’s philanthropic partners to fund or develop initiatives that support those facing immigration issues; increase access for noncitizens to obtain U.S. citizenship; and help them overcome barriers to economic mobility.

In addition, the director’s role will include connecting eligible immigrants and refugees with resources and social service programs that are already available to residents in the city.

If nothing else, said Rubedor, by creating of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, the city is making the statement that Minneapolis stands with its immigrant and refugee residents. “There’s so much negative national rhetoric going on that we can really make sure that we’re messaging out that immigrants and refugees are welcome in the city,” he added, “and to really counter that negative message.”

‘It’s progress from the city’

Community activists and nonprofit leaders serving immigrant and refugee communities in Minneapolis say the city’s effort to create the office is a step in the right direction. “It’s progress from the city,” said Mohamud Noor, former executive director of the Somali Confederation of Minnesota. “It’s the right moment to have that kind of office because immigrants and refugees have been under attack from the federal government.”

But Noor also said he, like other immigrant leaders, will be closely watching whom the city might select for the director position — saying the city should hire someone who’s both competent and has lived the experience of the immigrant community. That’s because immigrants and refugees tend to go to someone “they feel comfortable with,” someone they can relate to, he said.

Tea Rozman Clark, executive director of Green Card Voices, said while the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs will serve as a vital bridge between the city government and immigrants and refugees, the city must expand the office to better serve the community. “I think there should be more than one staff,” Clark said. “I think this office should learn from other similar offices throughout the nation and set a clear agenda.”

Rubedor said the hiring committee completed the first round of interviews last week and plans to begin the second round in two weeks. Once the final round of interviews is over, the city will make an offer by mid-May.

Rubedor hints that the current structure of the office might change with time and new leadership.

“This is a new venture,” he said of the position. “We have a framework about this work and what the person can and will be doing. But once we hire the director, that person would also have the opportunity to shape [the office] further.”