Minnesota has shown strong leadership on immigration reform, thanks in part to the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota (ILCM), one of several key organizations working on the issue. Today, I’d like to share an email interview with John Keller, Executive Director of ILCM, conducted by LIRS Media Relations Specialist Clarissa Perkins.
Clarissa Perkins (CP): How did you initially become concerned with immigrants and refugees?
John Keller (JK): From the moment I began practicing as an immigration attorney, I saw the need for a more fair approach when dealing with immigrants and refugees in our legal system. However, the catalyst for ILCM’s increased involvement in advocating for change in our immigration laws was the 2006 immigration raids on meatpacking plants in Worthington, MN. At the time, I had just become Executive Director of ILCM and saw first-hand the pain caused by our broken immigration system as hundreds of people were suddenly separated from their families and had no idea how to contact their loved ones or if they would ever see them again.
CP: Which ILCM services do you think are the most needed by your clients?
JK: Over the last decade ILCM established itself as Minnesota’s premier provider of comprehensive immigration legal services to low-income clients of all nationalities. Our services range from naturalization applications to deportation defense to political advocacy to change laws that negatively impact immigrants.
I am particularly proud of our work on U-Visa applications for immigrants who are the victims of crimes and are willing to cooperate with law enforcement officials regarding the investigation and/or prosecution of that crime. Often times these cases allow victims of domestic abuse or other crimes to escape a truly awful situation and increase the safety of the whole community by identifying criminals.
CP: Can you give an example of when you felt particularly proud about your work?
JK: Last year, President Obama signed a presidential action called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which offered a temporary stay of deportation to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as minors—or DREAMers. We presented on how to apply for the new temporary status in high schools, churches and community centers across the state eventually reaching 1,242 potential applicants through July 2013.
I am tremendously grateful and proud of all of the support (financial, volunteer and pro bono) that have helped ILCM’s staff to educate and process almost 1,000 DACA applications in roughly 11 months. These cases have a profound impact on Minnesota and the country by breathing new hope into the lives of each DREAMer. For these promising young people, DACA provides tangible benefits such as legal work authorization, access to a driver’s license, and opportunities to pursue post-secondary enrollment. Further, because of the President’s creation of DACA and our coalition-based advocacy at the state legislature, Minnesota became only the 4th state in the U.S. to pass a DREAM Act that not only includes in-state tuition rates, but importantly, equal access to state financial aid for low-income DREAMers!
CP: Raising public awareness on immigration issues is part of ILCM’s mission. How does ICLM do this?
JK: Our system of immigration laws is comparable to our tax code in terms of its complexity, leading ILCM to give educational presentations to stakeholders since our inception. These run from informational forums with business leaders about the impact of immigration law on hiring practices to more immediate updates to the immigrant community such as the DACA presentations.
Because over two decades have passed since our immigration system was last updated, it is impossible to present on the realities of our immigration system without revealing the ways that it does not match our modern economic or moral needs. Much of our presentations revolve around our country’s demographic need for immigration reform—our native born population is aging rapidly and our immigration laws are not set up to bring in the workers we need to fill these gaps.
Talking bluntly about the specifics of our imperfect immigration system also deescalates a formerly polarizing issue. When people—be they immigrants, law enforcement officials, labor groups, or communities of faith—are exposed to the byzantine details of our immigration laws it becomes much easier to see that labeling the undocumented as criminals fundamentally misrepresents the functionality of our immigration system.
CP: Do you see widespread support for immigrants and immigration reform in Minnesota?
JK: There is widespread, bipartisan support for immigration reform in Minnesota. We are currently a part of a coalition of over 35 Minnesota business, faith, labor, and community organizations that support immigration reform. It is rare that you see the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, and a wide array of faith leaders all advocating for the same issue but our immigration system impacts so many aspects of American life that each of these non-traditional allies have joined together to advocate for reform.
Conservative coalitions for immigration reform, such as the Bibles, Badges, and Business Coalition or the tech industry’s FWD.us, are a big reason why state wide polls have found majority support for reform regardless of political affiliation in Minnesota. In Republican Representative John Kline’s district, Public Policy Polling found that 77% of all voters—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—wanted to see immigration reform this year.
This October 5, ILCM and large group of bipartisan allies are putting together a rally for immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship. If you are interested in immigrant rights or want to learn why Minnesotans from all walks of life support reform, please RSVP for the event here.