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SCSU Hosts Immigrant Workers Conference

The second annual Immigrant Workers and Families in Minnesota Conference was held last week. It focused on the social conditions of immigrant workers in Minnesota, the Midwest, and the greater United States.

The conference was a collaborated effort by faculty members of the College of Social Sciences (COSS) and community based organizations.

The conference was made possible through generous donations by the COSS Faculty Research Group on Immigrant Workers in Minnesota, University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center, and United Way of Central Minnesota.

The conference focused primarily on Somali and Latino/a workers.

“We learn so much when we get together in a conference like this and bring together people with so many perspectives about rural immigrants,” Dr. Lourdes Gouveia, professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska, said. “Most immigrants have an incredible knowledge of agriculture and rural enterprises… but these skills aren’t being used. They don’t have any way of using them.”

The events consisted of panel discussions from immigrants or people who have worked with immigrants, and talks by academic researchers on immigration in America.

The conference started last Monday with a group of Somali youths from the University of Minnesota talking about their experiences as child immigrants.

The academic component of the conference consisted of talks by some of the leading figures in immigration studies in the United States.

One of the keynote speakers, Dr. Jan Flora, a rural sociologist from the University of Iowa, talked about the contributions immigrant workers have made to American infrastructure, the challenges undocumented immigrants face, and the future of immigration in the United States.

On why it’s important to study immigrant workers, Dr. Flora explained, “(Immigrants) are such an important group to work with because there’s so much anti-immigrant sentiment, and disjuncture between the contributions made by these new groups and the anti-immigrant rhetoric which distorts the facts.”

Dr. Flora has been studying Immigrant workers in Iowa and the Midwest for the last 10 years.

“The speakers we have are internationally recognized in their areas of immigration studies,” professor of sociology, Stephen Philion explained.  Philion is also the director of the SCSU Faculty Research Group on Immigrant Workers in Minnesota, which is an organization of mostly COSS faculty who conduct research on immigrant workers in Minnesota.

Other than researchers, local immigrant workers shared their stories as well.

Abdikani Dirie, Union Steward and production worker at Electrolux, a factory producing household appliances in Saint Cloud, gave attendees firsthand accounts of what it’s like to be an immigrant worker in Saint Cloud. Later, a student discussion regarding the difficulties Somali residents face in today’s economy was led by refugee employment specialists.

“It’s a conference about immigrant workers, so we’re very serious about bringing immigrant workers onto the panels… and giving them a real voice,” Philion said. “A lot of conferences on immigrant workers are all academics. You don’t actually have the immigrants on the panels.”

Immigrant Somali residents in Minnesota comprise about 15,000 people, with combined economic contributions estimated to be between 164 and 394 million dollars. There is also an estimated 600 Somali owned businesses in Minnesota, according to a study conducted by Concordia University professor Bruce P. Corrie.

The Social Conditions of Immigrant Workers and Families in Minnesota Conference is planned to be held again at SCSU next spring.

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