With immigration being such a divisive issue during the U.S. presidential campaign and to this day with President Donald Trump in office, a Blaine church hosted a panel of guests experienced in working with immigrants to show the realities they encounter every day.
“We all know immigration is a contentious issue,” said the Rev. Paul Moore, pastor of Chain of Lakes Church in Blaine. “The most important goal was to share information. There’s a lot most of us don’t know about this topic.”
More than an hour of the March 8 forum was devoted to people explaining terms, policies, statistics and personal stories before attendees were able to ask questions for a half hour by unanimously submitting questions on pieces of paper that Moore read to the panel. The panelists included people from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the International Institute of Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Health’s Refugee Health Program, The Advocates for Human Rights, the International Institute of Minnesota and the Center for Victims of Torture.
Leslie Tritten said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has 80 field offices throughout the United States. She is director of the St. Paul field office, which she pointed out is actually in Bloomington and will be soon moving to Minneapolis.
Tritten explained the processes people go through to become a U.S. citizen and thus an immigrant versus someone seeking a visa to work in the United States without being a citizen. She also spoke about how a refugee or an immediate family member of a refugee, a person granted asylum in the United States, or someone coming to work in the United States could seek a Green Card to become a permanent resident of the United States but without the right to vote.
The number that draws the most attention is the number of undocumented residents, also called illegal aliens, in the United States. The current estimate is there are 11 million of these people in the United States.
Minnesota has an estimated 90,000 undocumented people, according to Marge Higgins, health systems coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health’s Refugee and International Health Program. She said “a good percentage” of those are people who overstayed their visa deadline, but there are also people who fled another country but have yet to labeled as refugees or granted asylum by the United States.
“Just because people flee for fear of their life or fear of persecution and know they can’t return (to their home country) doesn’t mean that the United States or other countries consider them as eligible in the refugee category prior to their entry into the United States,” Higgins said.
She pointed out how the United States has been slow to accept Tibetans fleeing China because of the political repercussions it could have.
Higgins said that in 2015 there were 65.3 million people worldwide who were forced to flee their home country; 21.3 million are refugees or asylum seekers, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“That’s the greatest number we’ve ever had and the biggest proportion of refugees since World War II,” she said.
Almost 5 million have fled from Syria to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011. The U.N. refugee agency said 13.5 million still in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance.
The United States between Oct. 1, 2011, and Dec. 31, 2016, admitted 18,007 Syrian refugees, with San Diego, California (1,040), Chicago, Illinois (765), and Troy, Michigan (594), being the top three entries. Most of these refugees came last year when President Barack Obama met a goal of admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees.
President Trump has signed two different executive orders to impose travel bans and new immigration policies. He signed the second executive order on March 6 after a three-judge panel from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously to uphold a federal judge’s restraining order on the travel ban proposed under the first executive order signed by Trump.
The new version of the travel ban was set to go in place on March 16, but the evening prior a federal judge in Hawaii issued a nationwide order for the travel ban to not go into effect.
The revised order would have imposed a 90-day travel ban to the United States for citizens of Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Libya.
Iraq was removed from the travel ban list after being included in the first executive order. There was also no longer a complete ban on Syrian refugees wishing to enter the United States, but there would have been a 120-day suspension of the refugee program and Trump is seeking to limit the number of new refugees admitted into the United States in 2017 to 50,000.
Higgins showed that over the last decade the United States has generally set a goal of accepting at least 70,000 new refugees but in 2016 it accepted 85,000.
Michelle Garnett McKenzie is deputy director for The Advocates for Human Rights. She shared how her nonprofit organization works with hundreds of attorneys who volunteer their time to provide free legal services for those seeking asylum in the United States. While the United States will have an attorney at a deportation hearing, the U.S. is not legally obligated to provide an attorney for a defendant who cannot afford to hire one, since this is not a criminal court proceeding for a U.S. citizen.
“We’ve deported in the last eight years 2 million people – 85 percent never saw a judge,” she said.
McKenzie said some of these people already had an order to be deported, but others agreed to be deported and not see a judge. McKenize thinks so many are signing away their rights because of long incarcerations. She referenced a Wall Street Journal article that reported 45,000 immigrants detained in the United States as of October 2016.
“With representation rates being low, it’s difficult for people to assess whether they have a legal claim,” she said.
But on most occasions, refugees stay in camps in other countries for many years. Elizabeth Ross, a case manager for the International Institute of Minnesota, said less than 1 percent of refugees worldwide settle in a new country different from their country of origin. Some have been in refugee camps for as long as 20 years.
She showed a picture from a camp in Burma where a teacher was using chalk to draw on a large rock to teach English to refugees. The education varies between camps.
“They are being warehoused because there are so many more of them and what do we do with all these people?” Ross said.
People must first interview with the U.N. refugee agency to determine if they are refugees. And if they seek entry into the United States, they are screened by multiple agencies including the FBI, CIA and the Department of Homeland Security and they are checked by doctors for their health.
“People go through a very long and intensive vetting process,” Ross said.