Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Discussion: Minnesota Immigration Reform

August 05, 2014 By Deb Balzer, Communications Director

Minnesota has a long history of helping those in need; from the “mercy wheat” mission of 1946 where we sent wheat from Climax, MN to starving Europeans ravaged by World War II to opening our homes and communities to Hmong refugees from Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam beginning in the 1970’s. Today, Minnesota’s economy and culture are defined and enriched by the contributions of new Minnesotans from Somalia, Liberia, Southeast Asia, Mexico, Central America, Tibet, and more.

Where will Minnesota stand on the heels of the growing crisis of the unaccompanied children of Central America fleeing violence and seeking safety? Will we continue our history of helping those in need?

Joining today’s discussion is Javier Morillo, immigration reform activist and president of the SEIU Local 26—a union representing 6,000 janitors and security officers. Javier will lead a discussion both about what Minnesota’s role should be in helping the children arriving at our borders and also about what we need to do to fix our country’s broken immigration policy.


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  • Javier Morillo says:

    August 5, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Hello All - It’s great to be here this morning talking about this important topic.  I want to say at the outset that while in some ways I am a great person to speak on the subject, in other ways I am not.  I am president of Minnesota’s union of janitors and security officers.  Over the years, responsive to the needs of our members, I have worked in immigration advocacy. SEIU has worked for years to win comprehensive immigration reform, and I have done a lot of work in that effort.  When I say I am only in some ways the right person to speak to the issue of unaccompanied minors it is because this issue has been discussed within the frame of immigration.  I can speak to the political dynamics behind the discussion and its possible policy implications for the country and especially Minnesota.  But at its core, part of the problem is the very fact that we are seeing this as an immigration and not what it actually is—a refugee crisis.  I’ll leave that as my introduction and see if that spurs any questions!

  • Deb Balzer says:

    August 5, 2014 at 8:03 am

    Hello Javier,

    Thank you for joining us. I’m interested in your opinions about why should Minnesotans care about these children fleeing Central America who are arriving alone at our borders and what we should be doing to help them.

    Thank you.

    • Javier Morillo says:

      August 5, 2014 at 8:07 am

      I have been saying that, if the images we are seeing coming from the border—children held in cells, sleeping on floors or cardboard boxes - were coming from any other part of the world, we might be seeing Hollywood starts host telethon fundraisers.  The whole country, and we in Minnesota, must see this for what it is—part of a global refugee crisis, something we just happen to not have experienced as much as other parts of the world, or at least not as dramatically.

    • Javier Morillo says:

      August 5, 2014 at 8:10 am

      That’s the first part of my answer—because these children are refugees fleeing violence.  They are not immigrants looking for work. They are children.  The drug gang violence in small towns of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is astounding and independently verified by NGOs in the country.  Boys are being forcibly conscripted and, increasingly, girls are being sold into sexual slavery.  That is why parents are making what everyone must agree is the most heart-wrenching decision a parent can make—to push their kids into the dangers of the trek to the United States.

      • Deb Balzer says:

        August 5, 2014 at 8:13 am

        Why do you feel there has been such resistance or at least perceived resistance to offer aid to these children?

  • Mike C says:

    August 5, 2014 at 8:06 am

    Let our Marine out of prison in Mexico and then I’ll start to listen.

    I will not vacation in Mexico anymore or take cruises that stop in Mexico and until our government takes border security serious I will not support any candidate or program until they deal with this issue with honesty.

    I would stop all foreign aid and remove their ambassador from the US and I would call our ambassador home.

    I would force Mexico and the Central American countries to start taking this serious also. This is a national security issue and we had better stop sticking our heads in the sand.

    It is unfortunate that governments use their people as pawns. I’m tired of bring a pawn on this side of the border. I’m tired of my tax money being paid for all this stuff.

    We have our own children to take care of, we don’t need anymore.

    • Javier Morillo says:

      August 5, 2014 at 8:15 am

      The United States government spends more on immigration enforcement right now than all other law enforcement agencies combined - CIA, FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms and the Secret Service. When children are literally, freely walking into the arms of border agents, an increase in border patrol agents is moot.

    • Javier Morillo says:

      August 5, 2014 at 8:25 am

      Here is a New York Times article based on a study of the resources going into immigration enforcement:

      Although we must see the current situation as a refugee crisis, if we do view it through the lens of immigration policy, it should only motivate us more to solve the problem of our broken immigration laws.  We cannot enforce our way out of that problem.  Deporting 11 to 13 million undocumented persons living in the US would cost more than the budget of Homeland Security and could not be accomplished through means are values would find acceptable.  So, then, what is the solution—other than to fix the laws, and for that to happen Congress must act.

  • Javier Morillo says:

    August 5, 2014 at 8:21 am

    I would encourage anyone interested in learning more about what we can do in Minnesota to listen to John Keller’s interview with MPR.  John is the Executive Director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and a leading voices on all immigration-related issues in the state. The link to that interview:

  • Deb Balzer says:

    August 5, 2014 at 8:32 am


    You mention that SEIU has worked for years to win comprehensive immigration reform - can you tell us more about what that entails? And, why that matters for Minnesota.

    • Javier Morillo says:

      August 5, 2014 at 8:38 am

      In 2010, I took a leave from SEIU 26 for five months to help lead SEIU’s national immigration campaign.  For years, the union has worked on immigration reform and was at the forefront of the US labor movement changing its formerly anti-immigrant position.  Now all labor federations strongly back commonsense immigration reform.

      In Minnesota in 2009 our broken laws hit SEIU Local 26 directly.  An Immigration Customs Enforcement I-9 audit of one of our largest employers resulted in over 1200 janitors losing their jobs.  It was a devastating blow to the families that had made lives for themselves in Minnesota and that had fought hard, through successive contracts, to improve standards for all janitors, immigrant and US-born alike.

    • Javier Morillo says:

      August 5, 2014 at 8:40 am

      When you look at the demographics of Minnesota, while we have always been an immigrant state (people forget ballots in Minnesota were once printed in multiple languages - Norwegian, German, etc), we are no longer a European immigrant state.  As in the rest of the country, commonsense immigration reform will actually benefit all workers, all Minnesotans.  I’ll say more about that.

  • Valerie says:

    August 5, 2014 at 8:36 am

    Hello Javier,

    Thanks for being available to field these questions.

    I’ve been following this ever since it hit the news and have never gotten a clear answer… I know that many of the children coming into the United States are trying to reunite with family members in already in the States. But I’m guessing this must not be the case for all.

    Where are these children going? Who will provide for them? Even if they go to existing families, the families they go to won’t always be able to care for an extra person. Children who arrive here alone will most likely end up in some sort of system until they reach adulthood- and even for US born children that’s problematic. Even here children who grow up without adequate family support will be subjected to gang recruitment and trafficking.

    Second part of my question. Children growing up without families isn’t helpful in any culture or situation. Taking care of immigrant children who cross the borders isn’t really solving the greater issue at hand. They’re leaving because of drugs, gangs and violence. What can be done in the countries the children are fleeing from to make them safer, livable places- in the short-term?

    I know these are large questions. Any insight would be super helpful.

    • Javier Morillo says:

      August 5, 2014 at 8:44 am

      First, thank you for your questions.  They are very insightful and precisely the things we need to be thinking about. 

      You are correct - many of the children do have family in the United States.  My understanding is that where that is the case, DHS is attempting to place children with families.  I do not believe they are even doing that, however, until it is determined they may have a valid refugee claim.  That part is essential.  The reason children are not immediately sent back is a very good one. A law signed by President George Bush prevents the automatic deportation of unaccompanied minors was enacted to fight human trafficking - eg, child sexual exploitation.

      • Javier Morillo says:

        August 5, 2014 at 8:56 am

        I did not fully answer your question about where kids are now being held.  The unaccompanied children are being held in detention centers along the border and, increasingly, across the country.  Recently Congressman Ellison urged us here in Minnesota to accept some of the children as refugees. The federal government has been working with local governments across the country to find available space.

    • Javier Morillo says:

      August 5, 2014 at 8:47 am

      The second part of your question is precisely what I think we should be thinking about.  Instead, we are caught up in a debate about whether or not the kids should be immediately deported.  The reality is that they will keep coming so long as their countries are in crisis.  There are many reasons for the crisis felt in the home countries - everything from the ramifications of free trade policies to the seemingly insatiable consumption of illegal drugs North of the border.  The Drug War, such as it is, is creating a lot of casualties and it is impossible to describe what “victory” in this war would look like.

      • Valerie says:

        August 5, 2014 at 8:55 am

        Thanks so much for taking the time to reply, Javier, and again, thank you for being available to answer these questions as we can’t actually see what’s happening at the border.

  • Elizabeth Dickinson says:

    August 5, 2014 at 8:41 am

    Hi, Javier,

    From a political standpoint, MPR reported yesterday that 70% of all Americans (including Republicans) see and want these children treated as refugees.  The commentator said that Republican leadership might benefit from taking a hard line position in the very short term (the next election), but they were in danger of losing the Latino vote for decades. Frankly, I just don’t understand the Republican leadership.  Their actions and attitudes fly in the face of both compassion and reason.

    • Javier Morillo says:

      August 5, 2014 at 8:49 am

      Thanks for making this point Elizabeth.  While I do not believe that we should necessarily let polls determine how we deal with humanitarian crises, these numbers you cite have been a breath of fresh air.  In the early days of attention to the crisis, before I think the American public fully grasped the fact that these were CHILDREN coming, I think the conversation was dominated by people like Texas Governor Rick Perry. The fog of demagoguery is finally lifting and Americans are reacting, I believe, from the perspective of the humane values of this country at its best.

    • Javier Morillo says:

      August 5, 2014 at 8:52 am

      And I agree 100% with the commentator’s political analysis.  In a low turnout, off-presidential election year, it could benefit Republicans to energize their very conservative base using this issue.  In 2008 and 2012 Barack Obama received over 70% of the Latino vote, and that is the fastest growing voting demographic in the country.  Many Latinos use the immigration issue as a bellwether test to answer the question “do you like us or not?” Republicans have been hurt by the hardline, often flat-out racist perspectives of some of their most prominent leaders.

  • Steve Fletcher says:

    August 5, 2014 at 8:58 am

    I think it’s right to identify this as a humanitarian refugee crisis rather than an immigration issue, but we should also name the way our immigration policy is exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. It feels like, on a gut level, we’d be so much better off if parents could travel with their children and help them find safety, rather than sneaking across the border.  How much would comprehensive immigration reform provide relief in this crisis and other similar crises in the future?

    • Javier Morillo says:

      August 5, 2014 at 9:03 am

      Absolutely.  Watching the debate up to now, what has been frustrating is that there was this immediate assumption people in the beltway had that this crisis was going to make immigration reform impossible.  I’ve been arguing to anyone who will listen that we need to flip that.  This crisis of unaccompanied children is PRECISELY why we need immigration reform and ASAP.  It is shameful that Congress, rather than take that opportunity, actually passed a bill before leaving that would undo the relatively mild administrative reforms the Obama administration has put into place.

      When I say commonsense and comprehensive immigration reform, I mean it has to include a sane way of dealing with what we call “future flow” issues.  The Senate bill passed last year isn’t perfect but it does have a compromise on that front that is a building block.  My opinion is we need to have an independent commission, made up of a broad set of stakeholders, who set immigration targets.  The last number I heard is that the US gives 5,000 unskilled labor visas a year - nowhere near the number needed to meet demand. 

  • Sue says:

    August 5, 2014 at 9:00 am

    Hello, I am a teacher who has taught children at risk for in a level 4 EBD program for 20 years, worked as a child care counselor for three years in a residential treatment center for youth, and now a high school teacher. My commitment and concern for youth has been my life.  Children are the future, and what we teach them and how we treat them will determine the future of the nation and any nation involved!

    Mexico and South American countries are our neighbors!  I feel we are putting bandages on a severe social problem when we continue to take in other people’s children.  I feel that we, as a country, should be putting more efforts into teaching and helping our neighbors to become more self sufficient countries for the sake of dignity and culture within these countries.  When people aren’t working or can’t afford to eat or have shelter crime begins to evolve for the sake of survival.  The question we as United States citizens should be asking ourselves is, “how can we help these countries reform and become economically strengthened?”

    Taking in refugees is a worthy cause and humanitarian, however, it all costs money to feed, clothe, shelter, and educate people.  This is a problem in itself, unfortunately.

    • Javier Morillo says:

      August 5, 2014 at 9:05 am

      I don’t think it is either/or.  We absolutely have to deal with the long-term fixes in the home countries or children will continue to arrive.  That doesn’t help us with the current reality, where our choice is either to allow the children to come in as the refugees they are, or send them home to certain deaths.  Those are the choices.

  • Elliot Altbaum says:

    August 5, 2014 at 9:02 am

    Thanks Javier for moderating this discussion.

    What is one thing we can do in Minnesota to help with the child refugee crisis?

    And a related question, what is the best thing for Minnesotans for which to be advocating in immigration reform?

    • Javier Morillo says:

      August 5, 2014 at 9:08 am

      Part of the fear that many advocates have is that our resources for refugees are strained.  One thing everyone can do is help the organizations in Minnesota who do that work.  The Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, The Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, Lutheran Social Services, are just a few of the agencies I know that currently help immigrants and refugees.  If we help them do the work they have now, they will be better able to take on broadening their scope to deal with the unaccompanied children.  Everyone should listen to John Keller’s interview with MPR which also addresses this very question;

      John is the Executive Director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota

    • Javier Morillo says:

      August 5, 2014 at 9:11 am

      As for advocating for immigration reform in Minnesota - a call to action, especially if you live in the western suburbs of Minneapolis or south of the river.  Congressmen Erik Paulsen and John Kline are key to moving any reform proposal forward.  Kline is part of the GOP Leadership in the House.  If you live in either of those districts, call, email, then call again your MOC and urge them to move immigration reform in DC as soon as they get back from the August recess. Wherever you live, if your Congressperson is holding an August town hall meeting, please show up and speak up for the need for a broad reform package.

  • Javier Morillo says:

    August 5, 2014 at 9:28 am

    I want to thank MN 20/20 for having this conversation. If you’re reading this after the fact, please be sure to follow the work of the organizations that work on immigration and refugee issues in Minnesota.  Those include the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, the Advocates for Human Rights, Jewish Community Action, and many many churches and faith-based groups.  On the issue of unaccompanied minors, let us all please, when debating, take a deep breath and remind ourselves and each other: these are children.  We can all agree the world has not done right by these kids. May we all use our common humanity as the starting point for all conversations about the situation at the border. Thank you all!

  • kay kessel says:

    August 5, 2014 at 10:33 am

    I forwarded this Tuesday Talk to a friend who is a member of the Advocates for Human Rights and Isaiah Minnesota.  She has gone to Guatemala many times.  Isaiah is a faith based organization made up of over 100 congregations.  We are advocates for human rights and racial equity.  We met with Governor Dayton regarding Immigration injustices in Minnesota.  The Republican candidates were invited to the Convention Center with 1700 people but did not attend. 

    The Advocates for Human Rights has worked with about 200 of the border children.

    They had a vigil at the detention center last Sunday- about 200 folks were present.  A rabbi,an Imam and the archbishop were among those who spoke .

    We have to elect people in Minnesota regardless of party who care about humanitarian rights in Minnesota.  Churches have been harbors and their congregations have helped immigrants to become settled in the US because of their faith throughout history.