Western Minnesota town's residents seek to help fearful immigrants
MONTEVIDEO, Minn. — A group of residents in a west-central Minnesota town wants to work with the Minnesota Immigration Freedom Network to make the community immigrant friendly.
"We wanted to see if Montevideo can take the next step,'' said Amy Bacigalupo as she welcomed a small gathering May 16 at the United Church of Christ Congregational in Montevideo.
Mariano Espinoza, director of the Minnesota Immigration Freedom Network, works for the city of Minneapolis as an outreach specialist to the Latino community. Outside of work hours, he travels the state to work on immigration issues on behalf of the network.
The organization was created in response to the Dec. 12, 2006, raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at meatpacking plants in the country, including Minnesota.
"We were not prepared,'' Espinoza said during the recent meeting in Montevideo. Many undocumented immigrants were detained and deported. In many cases, parents were separated from their children, he told the gathering.
Federal immigration agents are more active today under President Donald Trump, according to Espinoza.
"We have legal residents now that are detained because they committed crimes, even misdemeanors, 15 years ago. But because they are not U.S. citizens, now they are targets,'' he said.
The "targets" for detention and possible deportation today also include young people who had been granted conditional residency under the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors act, according to Espinoza. Also, he said Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who once went to homes searching for specific individuals now detain anyone they find unable to document their identity or legal status.
Recently, agents have shown up in the courthouse in Mankato in search of individuals, he said. This practice can make immigrant families fearful of contacting law enforcement when they need help, he said.
Along with the threat of detention and deportation, immigrant and refugee communities are experiencing greater challenges in everything from obtaining a driver's license, health care services or affordable housing. He has visited with migrant workers in the Willmar and Cold Spring areas who live in cramped trailer homes, 10 people per unit, he said.
Montevideo has a population of Latino immigrants from central America. To reach out to them, those who gathered to hear Espinoza said they would contact the Catholic and two Protestant congregations in the community where the immigrants worship.
Espinoza said his first goal is to educate immigrant communities. They should develop a checklist of documents they need and contacts to help them protect their families should they be detained. They also need to know their basic rights, including the right to an attorney, he explained.
"If you have legal representation, your chances of being deported decrease by 75 percent,'' he said.
Espinoza said the Minnesota Immigration Freedom Network also helps communities develop safety nets to help immigrants. In Northfield, they have developed a text network to send messages for help, or to ask questions and get answers about rumors, he explained.
Espinoza said the organization is encouraging local governments to create immigration and refugee advisory committees to provide input to local decision makers. The network is also urging municipalities to create their own identification systems for residents, as well as pass ordinances stating that local police will not work to enforce immigration law.
Those attending the meeting in Montevideo said there are many in the community who understand the challenges that immigrants face, but there also are those who do not. One of the attendees, Mike Jacobs, urged that more be done to connect immigrants and long-term residents so they can know and understand one another better.
Espinoza said the state's immigrants are an important economic asset. Immigrants pay about $850 million a year in state and local taxes, he said. If all of the undocumented workers in Minnesota were removed, the state would lose about $4 billion in economic activity, he said.