Photo by Sarah Whiting
Photo by Sarah Whiting

reported by Andrea Duarte 

In 2014, when the Obama Administration was detaining refugee women and children at the border, Michelle Rivero went to New Mexico and spent a week providing legal representation. It sparked her advocacy work to communicating immigration challenges to broader audiences. 

After the 2016 presidential election, Rivero became director of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs for Minneapolis.

Rivero’s interest in immigration law is partially due to her heritage — her parents are immigrants from Colombia and Italy. “I’m international,” she explains. “I’ve learned a lot since I’ve started working for the city. It’s interesting how sometimes we can compartmentalize ourselves. I’m the daughter of immigrants. I am Latina. I am European. I was born in the United States. I’m an American. I have been aware of how constricting [labels] can be in terms of a person’s mindset. If I can think beyond how I traditionally see myself, I am capable of more.” 


Borders 

Rivero wants people to break away from the mindset that what happens to another ethnic culture in the community is not of concern. 

She hopes people who don’t have interaction with immigrants or the issues they face can begin to understand the fundamentals. “There is lack of awareness about how an individual can obtain immigration status in the first place. That lack of awareness leads to lack of sympathy and [compassion] for the challenges [faced by] others.” 

Rivero says the creation of borders in our minds, represented in walls and military guard, is about people’s aversion to things being different. “Enforcing borders, national or within communities, is largely a product of fear.” 

She’d like to use her experience to break down those borders — for example, helping people understand the history between the relationship of the United States and Central America, and why Central Americans are coming to the U.S.

"Knowledge replaces fear," Rivero believes. 

The more people learn about immigration and the challenges of obtaining immigration status, she suggests, the more likely they are to see the struggle of immigrants’ rights as a universal struggle. 



Immigration on a local level 

Rivero says, “I have been so impressed by what municipalities, like the city of Minneapolis, are doing to support immigrant and refugee communities.” 

A Minneapolis separation ordinance, for example, clarifies that the city is not responsible for immigration enforcement. It mandates that city employees will not use city resources — including police personnel — to detect or apprehend people solely for being undocumented. It states that city employees 
can only inquire about immigration status in certain situations, and that a photo ID document from another country does not subject a person to different treatment or scrutiny.

“It increases the likelihood that immigrant and refugee communities coming to the U.S. will turn to the city, including police departments, for their needs."

The Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs in Minneapolis has been operational for a few months within the Department of Neighborhood and Community Relations. Rivero is working with communities and organizations to develop the priorities of the office. The department supports initiatives that offer legal assistance in removal proceedings to immigrants who cannot afford an attorney, and that ensures that immigrant communities have equal opportunities for civic engagement and participation.

“I am very eager [to hear from] individuals who are interested in immigration issues regarding how this office can be of most use,” Rivero says. “A lot of my work entails talking to people about immigrant challenges — what our federal government is doing to make it harder to obtain immigration status and what we can do to respond. 




ACT = CHANGE

Michelle Rivero says many people innately recognize how important immigrants are to our society. To support immigrant communities, she recommends: 

1) Watch a “master calendar hearing” (MCH) — the usual start to the deportation process. They are open to the public at the Bishop Henry Whipple Building at Fort Snelling and “an eye-opening experience.” Go to an immigration information session or ask Rivero’s department to speak to your group on the subject of immigration changes. 
2) Call on local elected leaders to support measures that protect and support rights that benefit us all, such as driver’s licenses for all and robust state-funded legal access to justice. 
3) Support immigrants who work as community navigators and who participate in the political process. 
4) Participate in the local political process yourself. Go to a city council meeting, get an idea of how welcoming your community is. If you’re not satisfied, ask for more.