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Rural Minnesota Asylum Access Clinics Build Partnerships and Power

April 13, 2022

Last summer, coming off a year of serving clients remotely throughout the pandemic, our Refugee & Immigrant Program team embarked on a series of tours through greater Minnesota. With the support of the Blandin Foundation, we connected with volunteers, partner organizations, and clients to explore ways we can improve our work with asylum seekers in Greater Minnesota. Our last trip took us through Central Minnesota. Our last stop on that trip was to meet with a long-time client living outside St. Cloud.

"It will be great to see you!" She said, "There are other people around here that I think could use your help too."

We arrived to a warm welcome from 15 people crammed onto the front steps of her trailer. Many recently had arrived from Nicaragua, fleeing political persecution by police, paramilitaries, citizens groups and youth parties loyal to President Daniel Ortega. Some had participated in peacefully executed, violently suppressed protests in 2018. Some had flown the Nicaraguan national flag rather than the flag of the ruling Sandinista party outside of their homes. Others had refused to participate in pro-government marches recently mandated for all public sector employees from school teachers to civil engineers. All had faced persecution in the run-up to 2021's presidential election, ranging from threats, to surveillance, to kidnapping and torture.

As other tragic international events have bumped Ortega's crackdown from the headlines of American newspapers, the situation for those deemed disloyal to the Nicaraguan regime remains dire. Thousands have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, where much is unchanged, despite the turnover in U.S. presidential administration.

Over the past year-and-a-half, nascent Nicaraguan communities have sprung up from Willmar to Rochester to Sioux Falls. Central Minnesota and the small communities surrounding St. Cloud, in particular, has become home to this new group of Upper Midwesterners.

Most of these individuals and families arrived at the southern border seeking asylum. Many were released from immigration custody with little information about where to go next and how to apply for asylum in the United States. Several turned to a local community partner, Fe y Justicia. Though experienced in outreach and advocacy within immigrant communities in Central Minnesota, work with asylum seekers was new. Seeing the legal complexities that many individuals were facing, Fe y Justicia turned to The Advocates to partner in creating a model to provide access to the asylum process for Central Minnesotans.

Together with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid (MMLA) and Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN), Fe y Justicia and The Advocates planned our first Central Minnesota Asylum Access Clinic. The response was resounding. On a rainy November night, scores of asylum seekers packed into the basement of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Waite Park, eager to take the reins of their cases and collaborate with us on their applications. Fe y Justicia knew well the situation of each family we served. They provided interpreters and snacks. The Advocates' social work interns packed up toiletries and warm clothes to distribute. Volunteers, including Paula Duthoy (pictured above with Refugee & Immigrant Program Director Sarah Brenes), worked with asylum seekers to prepare applications in Spanish and English, listened to concerns, and began to unravel the legal knots that were keeping people from moving forward in the asylum process.

Our team drew on the successful pilot to roll out several other self-help clinics over the next few months. South Dakota-based volunteer Casey Eekhoff and her team donated 24 hours, filing five applications for seven people at a clinic in Sioux Falls. We also collaborated with our long-time pro bono partner Fredrikson & Byron's immigration legal team, which donated over 150 hours to help file eleven asylum applications.

The Advocates and Fey y Justicia organized two more Central Minnesota clinics to put the power in the hands of applicants themselves to file their asylum application, bringing in partners from the James H. Binger Center for New Americans, VLN, and the ACLU of Minnesota.

With advice and preparation from an attorney, over the course of one day (with a bit of groundwork ahead of time, of course) each applicant was able to prepare and submit their application for asylum in the United States and leave with a copy of the filing in their own words and language. While by far the largest cohort has been those seeking political asylum from Nicaragua, these Asylum Access Clinics served people with a range of cases from all over Central America.

Fe y Justicia is eager to expand its ability to serve as a resource for those seeking asylum. By partnering with The Advocates, they can be better equipped to distribute publicly available resources and more directly connect asylum seekers with us to access legal help.

And as a trusted community leader, Fe y Justicia is working with The Advocates to identify and address other human rights issues facing the community. One example is labor rights. Together, we are currently planning a fourth Central Minnesota clinic in May. In addition to preparing asylum applications, we plan to connect with community members who have been victims of labor trafficking in this country and help them to apply for T nonimmigrant status - a status for victims of human trafficking.

If you are a licensed attorney interested in volunteering in May or any future clinics like these, or in taking on a Nicaraguan political asylum or T Visa case, please reach out to us. We couldn't do our work without you. Thank you so much.

Join us at our Human Rights Awards Dinner on June 22, where we'll be honoring Fe y Justicia with a Special Recognition Award. Tickets available here.