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10 things you can do right now to help immigrants and refugees in Minnesota and beyond

Michelle Rivero, director of Minneapolis’ Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, provides nuts-and-bolts information for anyone interested in helping out asylum seekers and would-be new Americans.

Michelle Rivero
Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs Director Michelle Rivero, far right, addressing attendees of the “Immigrant Moral Witness, Moral Action” forum at First Universalist Church of Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

At last week’s “Immigrant Moral Witness, Moral Action” forum at First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, Michelle Rivero wrapped up her presentation by talking about the importance of speaking out with love. Given her experience as an immigration attorney and as Minneapolis’ first-ever director of the newly created Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA), Rivero said it was an emotional but necessary bit of information shared amid the rest of the night’s topics. Rivero expanded on her comments for MinnPost, and provided some nuts-and-bolts information for anyone interested in helping out in the face of how the federal government is treating asylum seekers and would-be new Americans.

“I think it’s easy to feel a great deal of anger when you see injustice, especially when you are coming from a position where you recognize a wrong, or multiple wrongs, and you feel like there’s very little you can do as an individual to right those wrongs,” said Rivero. “I think anger only gets you so far, as an emotion. And it certainly doesn’t do that much to convince people who disagree with you that there’s a different way, a better way, a quote-unquote right way, and I’ll be honest, I’ve learned this the hard way.

“I strongly feel that if you are advocating for a position, it’s important to do so with sincerity, with honesty, with humility. If an issue is very important to you, and obviously immigration is very important to me, I think the more that we can all do to convince people of why the path that we feel we should be on is the right path, the better off we’ll be as a society. And I think when you do that with sincerity, even people who disagree with you, you can find commonalities with.

“So when I say ‘speak with love,’ I know it sounds emotional but it’s just that idea of just because I disagree with what you’re saying doesn’t mean that I have hate, because hate doesn’t get you anywhere.”

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But information does. At a time of daily disconcerting headlines coming from the White House and the U.S.-Mexico border, Rivero provided an hour’s worth of information to attendees of last week’s forum and helped MinnPost compile this list of 10 things you can do right now to help immigrants and refugees in Minnesota and beyond:

1. Give money to organizations and causes, including Advocates for Human RightsImmigrant Law Center of MinnesotaInternational Institute of Minnesota, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, and Volunteer Lawyers Network. “Nonprofit organizations do receive a great deal of recognition for the work they’re doing, especially here in the Twin Cities,” Rivero said, “but it can’t be overstated how much greater the need is for legal services today than it has been in the past. We’re in a situation where it is significantly harder to achieve the same immigration objectives. Because of that, the existing nonprofit organizations are very challenged, because they have limited resources and staff, so additional financial assistance provides significant help to these organizations in helping affect these communities.

“Sometimes individuals and organizations provide matching funds, so if an organization reaches a certain goal, an individual, anonymous or not, will provide matching funds to the organization. I think there is sometimes a misperception that, if an organization has been around for a long time, they don’t need additional funding, or that an individual’s contribution of $25 or $50 or $100 doesn’t make a difference. But in reality, we’re seeing some large funding entities — like Target, for example, who made the news recently — where they’re changing their funding practices, and that has an impact on nonprofit organizations.”

2. Be a vocal advocate for the causes you support. “Write letters to the editor,” Rivero said. “If you have unique expertise or insight, write an [op-ed opinion piece]. Call your elected representative at the city, county, state or federal level to comment on bills you support or oppose to tell them what you want to see.”

Michelle Rivero

Michelle Rivero

3. Support an organization working to provide support to asylum seekers at the border such as Al Otro Lado. Rivero: “Al Otro Lado is providing critical assistance to individuals at the border who are being restricted from even presenting themselves to file for asylum. It highlights the critical need for individuals and organizations to be there, to observe, and to provide assistance to people who are trying to exercise what is a legal right in the United States, which is to petition for asylum.”

4. Pay immigration bonds. “An individual’s ability to succeed with their case in immigration court proceedings often has a lot to do with whether they’re able to [navigate] their way out of immigration custody,” Rivero said. “The facilities where immigration detainees are housed are 45 minutes to an hour outside of the Twin Cities. They’re difficult to get to; sometimes it’s challenging to actually get into the facility once you arrive, and there are fewer immigration attorneys who do that kind of practice, representing detained individuals. Detainee cases are processed more quickly than for people who are nondetained; sometimes those cases are processed over the course of the month, or a couple of months, so it’s harder to put together a successful case for an individual who’s in detention.

“It’s harder for an individual who’s detained to get an attorney to help them with their immigration case. There’s a right to have your own attorney, but there’s no government-provided attorney, even for detained cases. So for that reason, being able to pay an immigration bond and being able to be released from custody makes a significant difference in your ability to win your immigration case and remain in the United States. But many people are restricted or have challenges in paying the bonds, because you have to pay the full amount of the bond, and the lowest amount of the bond is $1,500 up to $25,000. Typically they’re in the range from $2,000 to $10,000. The Minnesota Freedom Fund recognizes these challenges, and their goal is to assist individuals in paying their immigration bonds.”

5. Learn about what your city is doing regarding immigration-related issues and ask how you can partner. Rivero: “Search council actions; get trafficking prevention information; attend a meeting of your Minneapolis neighborhood organization.”

6. Send local immigration attorneys to the border. “The American Immigration Lawyers Association, Minnesota/Dakotas chapter, is committed to sending attorneys to the border,” Rivero said. “We’re very lucky in that there are strong advocates who feel like it is important to be aware of and provide assistance to asylum-seekers at the border. There have been several groups of attorneys who have gone to the border, including Kara Lynum and Ana Pottratz Acosta, who have gone to the border. There are multiple benefits to assisting attorneys in their transportation cost or other costs of actually going to the border. Those attorneys do incredible work advocating for and providing legal assistance to asylum seekers, and they provide information to the broader community about what they’re actually seeing, and why it’s important for us as Americans to be aware of what our country is doing in our name and to identify what we can do if we disagree with what our government is doing in our name.

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“It also establishes a strong connection between what’s happening at the border and what’s happening here in Minnesota. Some of those individuals who are at the border trying to file for asylum are coming to unite with family who are here in Minnesota. I think it’s important to have that connection, and to have that understanding about this situation that may, in your mind, be far removed from what’s occurring here in Minnesota, but in reality it is not that far removed. For example, four years ago, during the Obama administration, when Central American women and children were being detained in New Mexico, some of those individuals came up to Minnesota and were represented by pro bono attorneys, including myself. So the more we can do to understand that it’s not so far removed from us here, the better. That sense of outrage (from Minnesota) is good, and I can assure you that immigration [law] practitioners in the South feel that same sense of outrage.”

7. Support the work of Clues and other social service organizations. Rivero: “Clues is a nonprofit organization that provides services to the Latinx community, but there are many, many other organizations who service specific cultural populations to support. Many of these organizations seem to operate under the radar, and I’m hoping for broader awareness of organizations like this.”

8. Be informed on immigration issues and issues that touch immigrants. “The Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota has action alerts and their website is very good at providing updates on things that people should be aware of,” Rivero said. “The blog explains the headlines and more complicated immigration topics with the assistance of immigration attorneys. One of the objectives of Women’s March MN in 2019 is to provide people with information and ideas of things they can do. Not only having a basic awareness of a topic, but delving into it. With the Office of Immigrant and Refugees Affairs, I am putting out an immigration bulletin approximately every two weeks to provide information on immigration-related topics. For more information, check out Think Immigration and Kara Lynum’s podcast, ‘Immigration Nation.’

9. Support MIRAC (Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee). Rivero: “MIRAC is an activist organization, and they champion a variety of causes, and it’s helpful to be aware of what they are advocating and what kind of activities they’re involved in, because they’re Minnesota-based and they have their finger on the pulse of many of the most important immigration-related issues of the day.”

10. Support Release MN8. Rivero: “Release MN8 is an organization that was started by an individual whose spouse was at risk of deportation to Cambodia, and now they’re focused on providing information to individuals who might be similarly situated, particularly Southeast Asian individuals who feel they may be repatriated by our government. They’re working in conjunction with the University of Minnesota law school and other organizations to provide materials, including an informational work booklet on what to do if you’re detained and what to do if the government is trying to remove you from the United States.”