WORTHINGTON — About 50 local residents tuned in Wednesday to a virtual discussion featuring Worthington’s Andrea Duarte Alonso, who works with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, and Erin Goeman, who grew up in Jeffers and now works as an immigration attorney near the U.S.-Mexico border.

The event was hosted by Worthington Area Immigrant Advocates and moderated by Erin Schutte Wadzinski, who owns and practices at Kivu Immigration Law in Worthington. Schutte Wadzinski explained that the purpose of Wednesday’s conversation was to help community members understand how what’s happening at the nation’s southern border affects the local area.

Goeman works for The Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project in Phoenix, Arizona, and primarily serves unaccompanied minors. She outlined the process that brings these children to communities all over the U.S.

Many families who arrive at the border seeking entrance to the country are expelled based on Title 42 of the United States Code, which deals with public health, on the grounds that there may be health risks if they're admitted during a global pandemic. They're told to wait in Mexico, which is often a dangerous situation for these families.

A federal court ruled that the government cannot use Title 42 to expel unaccompanied minors at the border. Families who have been expelled to Mexico, and have then encountered danger and threats to their lives, have sometimes had to make the agonizing decision to send their children into the U.S. alone. While some minors travel with family members, many unaccompanied minors make the journey from their home countries to the border by themselves.

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Once unaccompanied minors enter the country, they are placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and assigned a case manager, who tries to connect them with a sponsor by locating family members who live in the U.S. and vetting potential sponsors. A sponsor acts like a guardian and is responsible for enrolling the child in school, taking care of their physical needs and bringing them to their immigration court hearings.

At the same time, the government immediately begins removal proceedings for each of these unaccompanied minors, so legal advocates are necessary to help them navigate the court system.

“People go where they know people,” Goeman said, explaining that unaccompanied minors are sent wherever they have family members who can serve as a sponsor, which is how they end up in communities all over the country.

Duarte Alonso recently went on a volunteer trip to the border at Laredo, Texas, where she spent two weeks at a shelter helping connect recent arrivals with their next destinations in the U.S. She shared pictures of what she saw there and told the group that the new immigrants arrived with mixed emotions while relieved to be across the border and in a shelter, they also feared that the U.S. would turn them away.

Goeman said she also sees a whole spectrum of emotions in the youths with whom she works.

“They’re fleeing abuse. They’re fleeing extreme poverty. They’re fleeing persecution,” she said. “Their stories are really heavy. But I will say they’re incredibly hopeful ... are resilient ... have positive attitudes.”

Duarte Alonso got to hear many of these stories as she worked with folks seeking asylum.

“I was in disbelief sometimes,” she said.

Most people arrived with nothing, she explained, but some had modest possessions like a backpack of diapers, a cell phone or a religious item such as a rosary.

“Sometimes my Spanish didn’t cut it,” she added, saying that some of the migrants were Central American indigenous people who spoke a native language.

Schutte Wadzinski shared some ORR data with the group, noting that the latest statistics are from fiscal year 2019. During that time, 129 unaccompanied minors were placed in Nobles County the same number placed in Hennepin County during the same time period. Between 2013 and 2019, Nobles County received the second highest number of unaccompanied minors per capita of any county in the U.S.

She added that she’s aware of a recent increase in local residents being notified that someone has named them as a potential sponsor, which suggests that more unaccompanied minors may be coming to the area.

“This is something our community needs to be prepared for,” she said.

The 50 or so folks tuned into the Zoom call crowdsourced a list of ways community members can support unaccompanied minors and other immigrants:

  • Help with school enrollment, tutoring, learning English

  • Providing cultural activities and sports

  • Transportation to attorney meetings or court hearings

  • Financial or food assistance

  • Expanding access to mental health services

  • Referral to the Community Connectors program through School District 518

  • Be kind and welcoming

  • Examine personal implicit biases, and challenge peers to do the same

  • Appeal to state and federal representatives to make changes that will benefit immigrants

  • Listen to immigrants’ personal stories

The group was enthusiastic about finding ways to make the community more welcoming to immigrants. Attendees asked a lot of questions of Goeman and Duarte Alonso, who shared both difficult realities and success stories.

“There is room for more conversations,” Schutte Wadzinski concluded at the close of the virtual gathering.