Spring 2019
A naturalization ceremony at the U of M Law School's James H. Binger Center for New Americans. Photo by Tim Rummelhoff; illustration by Deni Rahayu
Cover Story

Faces of immigration


In a Minneapolis Star Tribune op-ed in September 2017, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler summarized what he’d learned from a year of talking to community leaders throughout Minnesota about the role of immigrants: “Turns out these folks contribute as workers, entrepreneurs, consumers—and links to the world economy.”

Members of the University community are making their own contributions to the national conversation on immigration—whether they’re studying refugees’ health, creating art about the meaning of “home,” or funding or receiving scholarships specifically for immigrants. 

Here are some of their stories—and how they’re exploring and addressing various facets of an issue that touches all of us.

Illustration by Deni Rahayu


“There’s a paucity of materials on recent immigrant and refugee experiences. We’re hoping to add to the public conversation and give tools to communities to tell, share, and preserve their stories. Storytelling is a way of getting at the human experience, creating dialogue, and breaking down barriers.”

Erika Lee is director of the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC), a Regents Professor, and Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair of Immigration History in the College of Liberal Arts. In 2013, the IHRC launched the Immigrant Stories project, which collects contemporary migration stories through digital storytelling.



The gut microbiomes of immigrants and refugees rapidly westernize after people arrive in the United States, according to a recent study from the University of Minnesota and community partners.

Number of refugees worldwide: 25.4 MILLION 

Source: UNHCR

“We found that immigrants begin losing their native microbes almost immediately after arriving in the U.S. and then acquire alien microbes that are more common in European-American people,” says senior author Dan Knights, a computer scientist and quantitative biologist in the U’s College of Science and Engineering and College of Biological Sciences. “But the new microbes aren’t enough to compensate for the loss of the native microbes, so we see a big overall loss of diversity.”

The research, published in November 2018 in the scientific journal Cell, was conducted in partnership with Minnesota’s large community of refugees and immigrants from Southeast Asia, particularly the Hmong and Karen peoples.    

Knights, a 2015-2017 McKnight Land-Grant Professor, believes the findings tell us a lot about our health. “When you move to a new country, you pick up a new microbiome. And that’s changing not just what species of microbes you have, but also what enzymes they carry, which may affect what kinds of food you can digest and how your diet interacts with your health,” he says.



 “To say that Hmong immigrant kids experience a cultural clash or a struggle between two cultures is too simplistic. These kids are not Hmong or American. They are a complex and evolving hybrid of the two. I believe that teachers can better serve their immigrant students by understanding the complexities of their lives and the fact that they experience life differently than mainstream  Americans born and raised here.”

—Bic Ngo, whose family fled Vietnam by boat when she was 5 years old, is the Rodney S. Wallace Professor for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning in the College of Education and Human Development.



“I walked across the border from Soviet-occupied Hungary to Austria the night of November 23, 1956, with nothing except the clothes on my back. I wrote to every university I could think of. The University of Minnesota gave me more money than I had ever seen: $140 a month for a teaching assistantship. I’m giving back now because I am grateful. The University was very  good to me—it gave me a chance.”

—Erwin Kelen, ’60 M.S., a University of Minnesota Foundation trustee and retired venture capitalist, established the Kelen Family Foundation Graduate Fellowship in 2013. It supports electrical and computer engineering students, especially those who are immigrants or children of immigrants. 



Like many U of M students planning to study abroad, Hemant Persaud went through months of preparation and mountains of paperwork to get ready for his semester in Montpellier, France. A French studies major, Persaud had received a scholarship to help defray travel costs and was excited about fulfilling his longtime dream.

DACA recipients in Minnesota contribute $15 MILLION in state and local taxes.

Source: Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy

His plans changed suddenly on September 5, 2017, when President Donald Trump announced an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. 

Persaud, who came to the United States from Guyana when he was 5 years old, is one of 800,000 young adults in the United States who qualify for the program. In the wake of the announcement—and the inconclusive court challenges that followed—the U’s legal team advised Persaud that he might not be able to re-enter this country if he left to study in France.

“I was so close to getting what I wanted,” Persaud says. “I had to start over again on literally everything. It took months for me to recover.”

He made the best of the situation, traveling instead to New York City for an internship at a fashion media company.  

He’s grateful for scholarship support that allowed him to pursue the internship and is hopeful about his future, despite the uncertainties of his legal status. “My life is pretty complicated, but I think the way things worked out was good,” he says.



“We wanted to do something positive and tell immigrants that there are people who support them and are happy that they’re here. By creating a scholarship for immigrant students, we hope to extend an invitation to participate in our institutions and contribute to our communities. As the flagship university in a state with a proud history of welcoming immigrants—especially those fleeing war or persecution—the University of Minnesota is the ideal place to make this gesture.”


—Minneapolis immigration lawyer Debra Schneider, ’01 J.D., and her husband, Steve Anderson, who works at the University of Minnesota Foundation, established the Immigrant Opportunity Scholarship in 2016. 



“My work is about creating spaces that make you question the inside and outside, and also the whole idea of home and safety. It puts people literally and physically in a position where they find themselves vulnerable or frustrated. One of my installations is a space with plexiglass in the middle and two doors. When viewers come into this space, they get trapped on either side. You don’t choose which side. It was amazing to watch people’s responses to it.”

Katayoun Amjadi, ’13 B.F.A., ’19 M.F.A., is a Minneapolis-based artist who immigrated to the U.S. from Iran in 2001. During her graduate studies at the U, she was a recipient of the Christopher G. Cardozo/Edward S. Curtis Fellowship.


Two years ago, when the U’s Law School started a program to provide legal assistance to immigrants in rural areas, the large volume of unmet legal needs quickly became apparent.  

“The face of rural areas is changing,” says Deepinder Mayell, executive director of the Law School’s James H. Binger Center for New Americans, which was established with a gift from the Robina Foundation. 

“There are a lot of immigrants working and living in these areas, particularly near meat packing facilities and dairy farms.”

In early 2019, the school launched the Rural Immigrant Access Clinic, which expands the informal outreach program into a semester-long learning experience. Law School faculty and students, along with volunteer attorneys, staff pop-up clinics to help rural clients with asylum claims and other legal issues.

“A lot of what we learn as students is abstract and theoretical,” says law student and clinic participant N. Georgette Marling. “It’s rewarding to work in person with clients and see that you’re filling a need. So many of our clients have never received legal advice and are so grateful.”

Marling, who plans to pursue a career in immigration law or environmental law, says working in the clinic has taught her practical legal skills and confirmed her beliefs about what immigrants offer this country. “The people we meet with are here because they want to work,” she says. “They’re coming here to contribute and have a better life.”



Every day, Marissa Hill-Dongre, ’06 J.D., sees how immigration issues in the headlines—such as travel bans, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and the end of long-standing programs such as temporary protected status—affect real people at the University of Minnesota.

10 University of Minnesota students have received support from the Dream Fund since it began in December 2017.

As director of the U’s Immigration Response Team (IRT), which was established in March 2017, she helps students, faculty, and staff understand the rapid changes in immigration policy and enforcement. 

Hill-Dongre says one of the biggest surprises in her new role was the overwhelming support from the University community. Shortly after the IRT was established, she heard from a donor who wanted to help Dreamers—undocumented people roughly between the ages of 17 and 35 who were brought to the United States as children—complete their degrees at the U. 

The resulting Dream Fund has raised almost $25,000 completely from private donors, many of them faculty and staff—and some of them students who make recurring gifts of $5 to help their undocumented classmates. For the recipients, Hill-Dongre says, this support can make the difference between graduating or abandoning their college dreams. 

“Across the board, the students who get funding tell me that not only is it a financial help, but it gives them this feeling that the University values them and wants them here,” she says. 



“You hear a lot in the news about infectious disease threats from migrants. However, any risk is quite small. Refugees have extensive screening, including observation for a week prior to departure—and if a fever is detected, they’re not allowed to board an airplane. The real risk of introduction and spread of infectious diseases is from the hundreds of millions of U.S. travelers and visitors annually, who get on and off airplanes from all destinations with no health screening.”

—Bill Stauffer, ’95 M.D., is director of human migration and health at the U’s Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility. He leads a partnership between the U and the UN Migration Agency, and is a lead medical advisor to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he develops health screening and treatment guidelines for refugees coming to the United States.