Community diversity championed at get-together for human rights

by Andrew Johnson

A Sri Lankan mother and child sit in prison awaiting asylum, crying, unable to speak English and with little ability to obtain proper legal representation.
They must wait there, possibly for months, until their case is heard in courts.
This is an example given by the Minnesota Advocates for Humans Rights of situations occurring daily in the United States, even here in Minnesota.
The human rights coalition, a collection of 350 state lawyers who volunteer free legal service for refugees, help such immigrants out of dire legal predicaments.
The group celebrated community diversity Wednesday night on the West Bank as area lawyers, refugees and human rights’ friends filled Andersen Library’s atrium for the annual get-together.
Refugees helped by the group in the past have included victims of domestic abuse, religious intolerance and racial hardship in their native lands.
Since early in its inception, Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights has been affiliated with the University, often working with the Immigration History Research Center.
The research center, founded in 1965 and now located in the new Andersen Library, documents the struggle of refugee immigrants who have faced, and continue to face, obstacles and barriers to a new life in a new country.
After its formation by area lawyers in 1983, one of the advocate group’s first projects was a joint effort with University law professors to help train area educators in human rights and immigrant issues. Together, the two groups formed a collaborative organization called Partners in Human Rights Education.
Jennifer Prestholdt, director for the advocates group’s refugee and immigrant program, said educational public speaking still remains a significant, and needed, part of what the group as a whole provides.
She estimated that the Minnesota Advocates for Humans Rights has given over 30 talks around the state in the last month and has reached about 5,000 people in the past year.
Prestholdt said there is a demand for immigrant information in Minnesota — a demand which continues to grow more diverse every day.
“Going back 10 years, the Twin Cities’ Southeast Asian population was, of course, large. Today, we have the biggest Hmong (an ethnic group within Laos) population in the entire Midwest,” she said.
Prestholdt also said the Latino population in Minneapolis and St. Paul is estimated at 125,000 and growing. There are about 30,000 Somalians and Liberians, she added.
The African immigrant population in particular has dramatically increased in Minnesota, Prestholdt said.
“A taxi driver in New York told a friend of mine: ‘Go to Minneapolis, there’s lots of Ethiopians there,'” she said.
Prestholdt attributes much of the state’s immigrant draw to the strong sense of community and past relocation work done by prominent Catholic and Lutheran churches here.
Last year, the advocate group helped 900 political refugees, working with legal donations totalling $1.8 million.
Kathy Moccio, a 12-year volunteer and area lawyer, said she loves the group’s work. Not only is it exciting, but it involves a real chance to help someone who really needs it, she said.
One of the most pressing situations facing Moccio and other group members is the result of a 1996 federal law that detains refugees seeking asylum in the U.S., often holding them in jails with criminals.
Particularly in Minnesota, refugees often must wait in prison until their asylum case is heard and decided. Some wait for months without any legal representation; their inability to speak English further impedes them.
“I think that the federal laws are reprehensible in that people are put in jail who are escaping political persecution,” Moccio said.
“It was supposed to be a deterrence to fraud but it’s not,” she added.
In addition to helping immigrants, much of the group’s current focus is aimed toward pressuring the Immigration and Naturalization Service to repeal the 1996 political asylum law.

Andrew Johnson welcomes comments at [email protected]