The McGill Report

The Shame of Olmsted County, Minnesota

Rochester, MN -- Quick! From what country do most of Olmsted County's immigrants come? Is it Somalia? Cambodia? Laos? How about China?

Good guesses, as refugees and immigrants from all of these countires have had a major and very visible impact on life here during the past decade.

But they are all wrong. The correct answer is: Mexico.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, some 1,783 immigrants from Mexico live in Olmsted County, far outstripping the 1,242 immigrants from Somalia, and the 583 immigrants from Vietnam, 466 from Cambodia, 425 from Laos, and 362 from China.

If you add to the 1,783 Mexican immigrants living in Olmsted, immigrants from Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, Peru and other Central and South American countries, the number of Latino immigrants here rises to 2,959.

Would you ever have guessed it? Probably not, because the Latino immigrant explosion -- in Olmsted County just as in the United States -- has happened stealthily, often (except in California and Texas) invisibly.

I asked a dozen friends last week where they thought most of the foreign-born population in Olmsted County comes from. Somalia and Cambodia were the top two answers. But those were the correct answers for the 1990s and the 1980s, respectively. Three years into the 2000s, the man on the street remains unaware of the massive Latinization of our community.

Why is that? Our Mexican neighbors blend in visually more than do our Somali or Asian neighbors, of course. But there is a more important reason that is rarely discussed, because it's a hard thing to bring up.

That is, many of our Mexican neighbors are living here illegally.

They live and work here, often for many years, yet have neither a valid visa nor a permanent residency document, usually called a "green card."

Lacking legal status, these immigrants work hard to stay invisible. They go straight from their jobs in restaurant kitchens, on assembly lines, on landscaping and construction crews, on the corn pack line, or on the farm, to their homes. They don't hang out.

They don't drive -- or they drive in abject fear because to get picked up without a license means a one-way ticket back to hopelessness in Mexico.

Nona Yancy, a caseworker at the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association in Rochester, says the number of Latino immigrant cases at the aid group is on pace to more than double in three years, from 460 cases in 2000, to 935 cases so far in 2003.

About 80 percent of those cases are living here illegally, she says.

Since by definition the IMAA tends to see immigrants who have documentation problems, 40 percent of local Latino immigrants here illegally is probably closer to the mark. No definite statistics are kept on the number.

Nationwide, depending whether you refer to pro- or anti-immigration interpretations of the raw U.S. census figures, between 20 percent and 40 percent of the country's 7.9 million Mexican immigrants are here illegally.

The shame doesn't lie with the immigrants. If you lived in poverty and had a chance to make a living, what would you choose? The shame lies with the United States, which maintains strict immigration standards but fails to enforce them. And why do we not enforce them? Because our corporations love cheap labor and lobby hard for lax enforcement of immigration law.

And, because we consumers love to eat affordable food, wear affordable clothes, and to have someone to nanny the kids while we go to the movies.

This state of affairs locks millions of our Mexican neighbors -- including as many as 1,200 men, women and children in Olmsted County (that's 40 percent of 2,959) -- into a desperate, twilight existence. They can't apply for health insurance; they can't drive; they can't apply for food stamps or any public assistance.

If a child gets the slightest cough or cold -- not to mention a broken leg or something more serious -- the parents face an excruciating and humiliating choice: Go to the doctor and face possible exposure and deportation back to Mexico and poverty? Or avoid the doctor and risk the child's life?

"Anyone here not with a legal status is a lifelong sitting duck," says Michael York, a Rochester attorney who specializes in immigration law.

Isn't it our responsibility to decide what we want as a society? Do we want to allow in lots of Latin immigrants to take the low-wage jobs that lowers consumer prices and raises standard of life? Or do we want to limit immigration for reasons of physical, social, and cultural security?

As things stand, we've chosen the former. And yet, in return for the improvement in living standards these immigrants bring us, we refuse to pay the price. Indeed, we make them pay the price in the form of lives spent in fear, always on eggshells, always trying to stay invisible.

What would it take to bring this invisible problem into the light of day, nationally? Could we do it here in Olmsted County?

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report