— “Rosa” is a lawful permanent resident living in a small Minnesota town. Rosa is law abiding, has always paid her taxes and is known to be a good neighbor. Recently, when her house was broken into, she was afraid to call the police. Rosa feared that, despite being in perfectly valid status, the police would detain her or turn her over to immigration because she is Latina. Also, while Rosa has a “green card,” many of her friends and family members don’t and she fears their deportation if she reports the crime.
Like Rosa, many immigrants across Minnesota and the United States fear speaking out when their rights are being abused. Fear of the authorities by immigrants, perpetuated by unjust laws, has led to exploitation. These violations can be as odious as racial profiling by police officers but also include abuse by domestic partners, workplace violations and even human trafficking.
The lack of equal access to justice has left many immigrant workers without the legal solutions to these violations that they need and deserve. Ironically, the resulting fear of contacting the authorities has likely prevented thousands of undocumented immigrants nationally from gaining lawful immigration status available to victims of certain serious crimes and domestic violence.
Local communities suffer when our system effectively separates and isolates immigrants from their communities. Immigrant parents do not feel safe leaving their neighborhood to go to their children’s sporting events or parent teacher conferences. Immigrant families stay home at night instead of eating out. They worship at different churches.
When communities stay segregated in this way, residents like Rosa feel that they do not belong. The result is an immigrant underclass that does not have the same advantages as their native-born counterparts. Crimes are underreported. Civic pride deteriorates.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit on behalf of immigrants whose rights have been violated by law enforcement, across the country and here in Minnesota. In the last few years, law enforcement officials around the country have stepped forward to document the harms to public safety caused by distrust of law enforcement within minority communities.
We have recently begun to see some progress. The changing demographics of the United States has kept immigration reform in the forefront of the public’s mind. In the 2012 presidential election, Latino voters made up 10 percent of the voting electorate nationwide and that number is expected to increase. Both Democrats and Republicans, out of political necessity, are trying to create a comprehensive solution to the current immigration boondoggle created by a series of messy laws passed in the mid-90s and continuing to the recent Secure Communities Program.
A comprehensive solution to our immigration quagmire must include improvements to immigrants’ access to justice, protections against racial profiling, and initiatives to improve community relations between immigrants and law enforcement at the local, state and federal level. If we are to fix the U.S. immigration system, we need to take into account ways to protect the rights of immigrants as we expand their franchise in this country.
Ian Bratlie is a staff attorney with the ACLU Minnesota office in Mankato.