Rochester’s Immigration Community: Setting Aside Fear in Favor of Facts

Immigration has become a hot topic, first with the question of whether those who are here in the United States illegally should be deported, and now with recent terrorist events overseas leaving many to question whether the United States should close her borders to Syrian refugees. It’s difficult to ignore the pervasive fear of the unknown, and Rochester Immigration Attorney Susannah Nichols of Ryan and Grinde Law Firm understands these concerns.

Relocating to the United States

“I understand the fear,” Nichols comments. “You’re letting a stranger into your house and you don’t know 100 percent what they’re going to do.” However, according to Nichols, it’s important to understand that the process of relocating to the United States as a refugee is neither swift, nor easy. In fact, the process is so stringent that it takes nearly two years to complete.

Catherine Bauer, an immigration attorney with Bauer Law Firm, agrees. “Each year the government decides the number of refugees they will accept. Those refugees are then processed with nonprofit organizations and then relocated to areas not currently overpopulated,” Bauer explains. This process traditionally takes a minimum of 18 months, but new legislation passed by congress in late November now requires a stricter look at those seeking refuge, and will likely add an additional six months to this process. Syrian refugees currently applying for asylum in the United States will likely not arrive until late 2017 at the earliest.

Immigrants in Rochester

The United States—and Rochester in particular—has always been especially welcoming to immigrants. According to the 2004 “McGill Report,” Minnesota has traditionally seen a higher number of immigrants than most other states. The report attributes these numbers to the active sponsorship of Lutheran and Catholic charities and the tradition of stable social services offerings.

With what appears to be an increase in immigrants to Rochester, some citizens have voiced concerns regarding what effect the immigrant population might have on local resources for social services. Bauer addresses these concerns head-on and states that these worries are largely unfounded. Before relocating to the United States, “[Immigrants] must be able to show that they will not apply for public benefits,” Bauer explains. 

With the exception of refugees who come here with little more than the clothing on their backs, immigrants are sponsored by organizations or individuals who sign a contract with the federal government promising that they will be fully responsible for their financial support. As a result, these immigrants are not afforded the opportunity to apply for social service programs, and their sponsors may face serious legal penalties if they attempt to apply. 

Carole Pasternak, an immigration attorney at Klampe, Delehanty and Pasternak Law Firm, agrees. “The idea that we’re going to get 100,000 refugees and they’re going to use all of our resources is not likely. Most of the refugees that we see are looking to work and better their lives.” 

Here Temporarily for Work and Education

According to Bauer, Nichols and Pasternak, it’s important to note that Rochester’s immigrant population is not limited to those seeking refuge from war-torn countries. In fact, a good percentage of immigrants to Rochester come here by request from large companies who are seeking employees with unique skill sets not easily found among our citizens. Additionally, some of these immigrants relocate here temporarily for an opportunity to learn from our education system and take those skills back to their home countries. Nichols estimates that roughly 75 percent of Rochester’s immigrant residents are here legally, and many are here with strong occupational guidelines that allow them to work here for a period of time before returning to their home countries.

Apply for Permanent Residency

Bauer has personal experience with this as she, herself, is an immigrant from France. In 1997, Bauer followed her husband to Louisiana on a three-year exchange visa to pursue medicine. While there, their plans changed, allowing them the opportunity to remain permanently.

“After the first year, we played in what is called the ‘diversity lottery.’” Bauer explains. This “diversity lottery” is hosted by the State Department and allows for a random computer drawing among legal immigrants who, if selected, are granted the opportunity to apply for permanent residency. Bauer’s number was drawn, and in the years that followed, Bauer (who was trained in France as a physical therapist) went back to school to pursue a degree in law. Since then, she and her husband have relocated to Rochester, raised a family and taken the final steps to become American citizens.

“We’re all immigrants, for the most part,” Nichols explains, estimating that 99 percent of us descended from immigrants or are immigrants ourselves.

Catherine H. Armstrong is a 1992 graduate of the University of Oklahoma, an avid blogger and the author of the historical fiction novel, “The Edge of Nowhere,” under the pen name C.H. Armstrong. For more information, visit