We are living through an inspired moment of political social gatherings and intellectual protests — as any cursory scan of a local events calendar can attest these days. Churches, events centers, bars, and town halls of all stripes — around these parts, anyway — are holding forums on immigrant and refugee rights, anti-racism, anti-Semitism, and other well-attended happenings that seek answers and information in a time of hatespeak and worse.
More are on the way, and the passion witnessed by this reporter at some of these most recent events confirms that, in the face of all that’s wrong, people want something tangible, physical, and edifying in their activism.
“I get the feeling that the [midterm] election results have really emboldened people,” said Michelle Rivero, who will speak at “Immigrant Moral Witness, Moral Action: A Conversation” Thursday at First Universalist Church of Minneapolis.
“A lot of this was happening already in 2018, but I think you really have momentum and people are going into 2019 saying, ‘I want to do something now.’”
The director of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs at the City of Minneapolis, Rivero will be joined in Thursday’s conversation by Gerardo Guerrero Gomez, the head consul at the St. Paul office of the Consulate of Mexico.
Both leaders are on the front lines of immigration law, the application of which has been thrown into chaos by Trump’s shutdown of the federal government, even though they work thousands of miles from the border in Minnesota.
“Part of the discussions that I’ve had have centered on what is happening at the border and impacts on Minnesota residents and some of the individuals who are trying to get into the United States and trying to come to Minnesota to be united with family here,” said Rivero. “So part of what I’ve done is communicating to individuals both within the city enterprise and in communities regarding what the federal government is doing, how the rules and procedures are changing in a way that, given my background as an immigration attorney, I feel violates our immigration laws. And also identify the ways that people can be responsive, depending on how much energy they’re willing to commit and what types of things they feel they’re able to do.”
No time like the present, as the Star Tribune reported this week that Minnesota took in just 663 refugees last year, “the lowest number in more than a decade for a state with a history of accepting several thousand people annually. … The number of refugees is expected to fall even further in 2019 as the Trump administration reduces the limit on how many people the U.S. will accept.”
“Since the beginning of the current administration, I’ve seen a lot more fear in immigrant communities — not just individuals who are trying to obtain status, but individuals who already have immigration status, felt fearful that their status could be put in jeopardy,” said Rivero. “I have heard instances of racism, and people feeling emboldened by this current administration to say and act in ways that are xenophobic and racist towards individuals from immigrant and refugee communities.
“So how much is rhetoric and how much is reality? I can say definitely that there are changes in immigration proceedings that have a concrete impact on immigrant-refugee communities. Policy changes, procedural changes, changes in the way that certain benefits are processed, but there’s also a change in attitude, too, where people who already feel or think in a way that’s prejudiced, feel emboldened to act out their prejudices, and that’s very tangible, too. I see that in my work, and it’s been expressed over and over.”
Rivero’s work includes keeping people informed about federal policies and what is occurring on the border as those policies are carried out. “I regularly communicate information to elected officials in the form of a bulletin that goes through developments, including what’s happening at the border,” said Rivero. “We’re very fortunate in Minnesota in that there are some very active immigration attorneys, including Kara Lynum and Ana Pottratz Acosta, who have gone down to the border, and some of our law professors have brought groups of students down to the border as well. So we’re fortunate in that there are lots of voices talking about exactly what the situation is and what’s wrong with it.”
Lynum took part in Saturday’s Women’s March in St. Paul, and passionately told thousands of frigid feminists about her work and the harrowing scenes she saw upon her recent visit to the border in Tijuana, Mexico: “If this is what happens when members of Congress and attorneys and members of the media are there to witness these violations, it’s truly terrifying to think about what happens when we’re not all there. Our government is adding detention beds in Florida, and the administration is currently trying to hold children and families in indefinite detention while they’re seeking asylum. We’re lucky to have so many groups in Minnesota working on these issues. Many of them are sponsors of today’s events, and many of them are immigrant-led and led by women of color. Seek out these groups to donate your time and money, and you need to call Congress. Our federal immigration agencies, particularly CBP, need to be held accountable. Congress needs to be asking questions, and they need to know it’s important to you.”
If recent similar events are any indication, Thursday’s “Immigrant Moral Witness, Moral Action: A Conversation” forum should attract a big crowd of frustrated immigrant allies looking to do more. Other than attend boots-on-the-ground rallies like this and calling Congress, what can people do?
“Another important way we can combat what we’re hearing from Washington is to identify ways in which the city actually is supporting immigrant and refugee communities,” said Rivero. “Minneapolis has created a series of policies and programs that really do a lot to provide stability to our communities. So I think that’s tangible. It is difficult to be a citizen, and to know what our government is doing, and I’ve seen at some of the speaking engagements I’ve done that people really want to do something positive in response to what’s happening. They’re looking for opportunities to clearly and boldly state, ‘This is not us, this is not who we are.’ I think that really has a lot of power and the potential to improve our society — not just locally, but regionally and nationally.
“Working within your church community to communicate with nonprofit organizations that provide legal services to immigrants and refugees to identify if someone needs a ride, or whether you can actually sit in on an immigration court hearing and be a witness, or whether a person could use a Target gift card, for example — these are small things individually, but if many people engage in these activities, it really adds up to strong support for immigrant and refugee communities.
“Assisting people who may be interested in filing an application for naturalization, but for one reason or another may not be equipped or able to do so. The naturalization application filing fee is over 700 dollars, and that is a significant impediment to people. But also, filing for citizenship and becoming a U.S. citizen is one of the most powerful ways possible to protect yourself from immigration enforcement.”