A new Ellis Island here in Minnesota?


Green Card Voices helps immigrants tell their own stories

Emilia Avalos and Tea Rozman Clark
Emilia Avalos and Tea Rozman Clark

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. reached a high of 12.2 million in 2007, and now is at 11.3 million — about 3.5 percent of the nation’s population. The center also noted in a July article that Mexicans make up nearly half of all undocumented immigrants; six states — California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois — make up 60 percent of undocumented immigrants.

Over five percent of the country’s labor force consists of undocumented immigrants, and about seven percent of K-12 students have at least one undocumented immigrant parent.

“I am still undocumented,” admitted Navigate MN Executive Director Emilia Avalos, mother of a young daughter. “I do fear [deportation], but it doesn’t control me. I am very grateful that my parents [from Mexico] gave me a shot at an opportunity.”

The September 2 Green Card Voices (GCV) “Changing the Dominant Narrative: The Power of Immigrant Voices” at Intermedia Arts in South Minneapolis focused on the importance of immigrant stories including immigrant voices from people of color.

“Stories are still used predominately to tell White immigrant stories,” said GCV Director Tea Rozman Clark, who pointed to institutions such as New York’s Ellis Island, “that has three million visitors [who] predominately see that story.” She sees GCV as a “new” Ellis Island, now celebrating its second year of operation and having recorded over 130 stories from immigrants from 70 countries,

“Why don’t we have an institution or museum today that is visited by three million people [annually] that is about the 11 million immigrants living in the United States today?” suggested Rozman Clark, who said that immigrant storytelling “is really an incomplete story. I wanted to organize this forum because I do see the different people trying to use present-day storytelling to impact average people about immigrants. We are still quite scattered and don’t have a joint platform.”

Rozman Clark moderated a roundtable discussion on how good immigrants are at telling their own stories. She told the audience that too often immigrant stories are “hijacked” by politics and other factors.

Too many Whites are telling immigration stories, and many aren’t connected to immigrant communities, said Kevin Vollmers of Gazillion Strong. “You have to challenge” what is being said about immigration. ‘If you don’t challenge, it remains the status quo.”

Avalos said she sees too many immigrant stories done by mainstream media as “toxic and a lie. We have very powerful stories to tell.” An independent media helps present immigrant stories fairly, added Avalos. Having local immigrants writing stories helps as well. “It allows you to have balance and create a real lens.”

She said that the “objective point of view” that mainstream media often claims is a misnomer, especially in telling immigrant stories. “It’s a White man’s objective and it is not relatable — everybody’s biased and everybody is subjective to their own reality. How can we connect these realities and tell the story in a powerful way?” asked Avalos.

Ibrahim Hirsi, who writes for MinnPost and the St. Cloud Times, noted that immigrant stories should be balanced. “I try to do my best in telling the positive ones as well as the negative ones,” he said.

Said Kenya-born Julia Nekessa Opoti, host-producer of “Reflections of New Minnesotans,” a weekly radio show where “I try to tell stories about immigrants from their perspective.” She added that the current immigration debate is “anti-people of color” and added, “It is not just the far right, but also liberals.”

She afterwards told the MSR that the mainstream media should follow community media in better connecting with immigrant communities. “The biggest thing is not to focus on headlines or breaking a story,” she pointed out. “The only way you can know that is by engaging with them long term.

“That’s why community newspapers do so well, but unfortunately [they] don’t have the money… They get stories that otherwise you wouldn’t get because they’re there in the community.”

Rozman Clark told the MSR during a break in the half-day forum, “I wanted to create a day in [which] we can amplify the voices of immigrants. I can [easily] turn this into a three-day event. It is an uncharted territory.”

There is too much negativity in reporting on immigrants, and immigrant stories shouldn’t be so political, said local immigration law attorney Laura Danielson. Danielson said she disagrees with using the term “anchor baby” by several Republican presidential candidates for pushing to end birthright citizenship. The 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship regardless of ancestry, cannot be overturned by a presidential executive order, she explained.

“The people who want to renounce [birthright citizenship] are really shortsighted in looking [at the issue],” said Danielson. “It is a critical part of who we are” as Americans. “The immigration laws can be changed by Congress.”

She recalled President Obama’s November 2014 executive order, which would have granted undocumented folk Social Security cards and expanded deportation relief. “But that right now is being challenged in the courts,” she added.

Undocumented folk “aren’t going away. They’re here, and it is a tragic situation in which they live.”

“We really need to create a way to share the stories in a contemporary way, and I think digital storytelling is the way,” said Rozman Clark. “But I do think if we work together, these stories and voices can be even more amplified.”


Information from the Pew Research Center and Ebony.com was used in this report.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.