Minneapolis leaders say it’s not the city’s job to get involved with immigration enforcement. Yet as the federal government has stepped up deportations and tightened limits on refugees, the city has hired its first full-time advocate for immigrants.
Since July, Michelle Rivero has served as director of the city’s new Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. Rivero had worked for years as an immigration lawyer, representing clients in matters of asylum, deportation and visas.
In an interview, Rivero said she will work on those same issues on a larger scale, though she’s still figuring out how.
“This is, I believe, the most challenging time for immigrants,” she said. “What keeps me up at night is trying to identify how I can be useful in making a difference in this role with the city.”
The position was created in former Mayor Betsy Hodges’ final budget. Rivero, who’s paid an annual salary of $101,517, said she hopes to collaborate with organizations interested in advancing and protecting the rights of immigrants, whether it’s developing ordinances, briefing elected officials or raising awareness about filing for U.S. citizenship.
In recent years, cities including New York, Seattle, Denver, Baltimore and Albuquerque have created offices with the aim of making immigrant and refugee residents feel welcome in their communities.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, said it’s good for municipalities to ease the transition of refugees and immigrants to their new home.
“What I think is a problem is if the locality creates programs that encourage people to come or stay illegally, because that’s undermining our legal immigration system and diverting scarce resources in a way that encourages them to defy the law,” said Vaughan, whose group favors curbing immigration.
David Rubedor, the city’s director of neighborhood and community relations, advocated for the new office and said the city isn’t intending to thwart immigration enforcement.
“We are talking about a much broader spectrum of services to support immigrants and refugees, making sure that our city programs are tailored to and are able to address the needs within each of the immigrant communities in our city,” he said.
Minneapolis has a “separation ordinance” that prohibits police officers from acting as immigration enforcement agents.
While Rubedor said the term “sanctuary city” has no firm definition, he wants Minneapolis to be a “welcoming place” at a time when the federal government’s policies are having a negative impact on immigrants and refugees.
“Instead of us reacting to things coming up,” he said, “we should just be more proactive in putting together a point person in the city that will continually lead the city’s work around immigrants and refugees.”
Rivero, 45, grew up in New Orleans, the daughter of immigrant parents — an Italian mother and a Colombian father. In 2014, she traveled to Artesia, N.M., to represent women and children seeking asylum who were detained at the border. She said that was the first time in her career she has seen the detention of women and children fleeing violence in their home countries.
The Obama administration’s family detention program “had a very strong impact on me,” she said.
Rivero said the detention of women and children has intensified under the Trump administration. As a result, she said, she doubled her advocacy work at the beginning of the new administration.
“I started realizing I was more oriented toward advocacy than toward direct representation,” she said. “That’s part of the reason that I applied for this position.”
Rivero’s former colleagues said her experience as an immigration lawyer and ability to network make her the right person for the city job.
Ana Pottratz Acosta, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, worked closely with Rivero at the American Immigration Lawyers Association heading into the 2016 election.
“She’s kind of one of those people that when the rest of us are kind of feeling exhausted, she’s like, ‘No, we can’t be tired. Let’s get up and we’re going to keep on fighting and keep on going,’ ” Acosta said of Rivero. “I will get e-mails from her at 5 in the morning and she had already been up working for an hour or two while I was still asleep.”