Credit: Illustration by Aala Abdullahi | Sahan Journal

For two years, D.N. has been searching for her birth certificate. Like a lot of Minnesotans, she needs this official form of identification for a few reasons—recently, to clear up pending charges in Hennepin County Court and apply for housing benefits.

But her specific challenge isn’t one many people have dealt with, and, as she’s concluded, it’s nearly impossible to solve. Her family lost her original birth certificate in the wave of destruction during the First Liberian Civil War (1989–1997). Until recently, the only place that could reprint it—the Ministry of Health office in Monrovia—was inundated with requests. That didn’t matter anyway; she hasn’t lived in Liberia since she was 1 year old.

On a morning in mid-March, D.N. sat in a hotel lobby–one arm cradling her baby, the other clutching a brown-bag lunch, her phone sandwiched between shoulder and ear. On the other end of the line, her public defender discussed D.N.’s route to clearing up her court case and avoiding potential prison time. 

Letting go of the brown bag to disconnect the call, she said, to no one in particular, what she knew to be true before she’d even dialed: “Without that certificate, I have no protection.” 

D.N., who asked Sahan Journal to use her initials while she resolves her legal issues, is many things: a mother of two, a partner, a sister, an American, a Liberian, a person who is chronically unhoused.

One thing she does not consider herself to be is an immigrant—until it comes to housing. 

In this realm, she, like many unhoused immigrants and children of immigrants, faces a slew of challenges that stem from lacking several forms of U.S. government–issued identification.

Her father and children are citizens; she’s not.

D.N. came to the U.S. in 1996 as a refugee. Her father became a U.S. citizen in the early 2000s, D.N. said, but never completed her naturalization process. She graduated high school as a permanent resident with a green card. To prove her relation to her father and receive a passport, she said she submitted everything required by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services: her father’s naturalization document, school records, health records, photos of her karate class enrollment. 

Make that almost everything: Immigration authorities won’t move her application forward without a birth certificate. And that, D.N. has found, makes getting an apartment or any secure housing borderline impossible.

She let the ID issue go until early 2020. Battling three simultaneous crises—a recent eviction, a misdemeanor charge, and COVID-19—she found herself once again in need of her birth certificate. Without it, she lacked adequate identification to obtain a new driver’s license, replacing the one she lost in the eviction. She couldn’t apply anywhere for housing with her two children.

An estimated 50,000 Minnesotans experienced homelessness over the course of 2018, according to Wilder Research’s most recent triennial study. Though data show that immigrant families are at a higher risk of experiencing poverty, Minnesota does not collect any data on the relationship between homelessness and immigration.

David Hewitt, Director of Housing Stability at Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness, told the Sahan Journal that in 2016 the county removed questions and data on immigration status from the Statewide Homeless Management Information System. Hewitt explains that county officials were concerned about legal requests for the data and how it might be used.

 A 2018 research paper in the journal Public Health studying homelessness in Minnesota noted, “There has been no national study of homelessness among U.S. immigrants…the characteristics of homeless immigrants are largely unknown.”

This lack of information creates challenges with identifying and meeting the needs of unhoused immigrants or renters at risk of displacement. Enormous efforts are underway to get Afghan refugees resettled and housed in Minnesota. But even for refugees and immigrants who have been in the U.S. for years, lapses in housing and further displacement pose continuous challenges.

Working with The Advocates for Human Rights, a legal services nonprofit, Madeline Lohman conducted dozens of interviews with Minnesota immigrants on economic and political issues, including housing. Lohman then authored a report titled  “Moving from Exclusion to Belonging.”

“People were seeing an overarching theme in the encounters they had, and the cumulative experience of always being asked to show ID, or having a lot of bureaucratic requirements, seemed to stand between them and housing,” Lohman told Sahan Journal.

Ordering a state ID while homeless: What address should that go to? 

Immigration status is one of the largest barriers facing people and families who are unhoused and seeking long-term shelter or daytime services, according to Patience Zalanga, a shelter advocate with Simpson Housing, a Minneapolis nonprofit. 

For single adults, getting into shelter often requires a “community card,” a specific type of ID that serves as a ticket to move within the homeless service ecosystem. As Zalanga explained, if someone doesn’t have one the first time they call Adult Shelter Connect—the hotline that connects unsheltered people to shelter beds in Hennepin County—they have to go downtown to get it printed. That complexity intensifies for people who don’t speak English as their first language, Zalanga explained.

Ami Lazo has worked as a housing case manager for several agencies since 2004. For families, Lazo explained, the community card doesn’t suffice: They must prove a familial relationship with birth certificates. 

“Can you imagine: you’re trying to figure out where you’re gonna lay your head, and everything you own is in a backpack, and it gets stolen? I’ve had clients who had their bag stolen and their green card was in it.”

Different families confront different challenges. For example, if a father has three biological children but he is not on the birth certificate, the family often cannot get in. For a couple who have children but are not legally married, the parent named on the birth certificates can get in, but the second parent may not.

Not every shelter, housing program, or county has the same requirements, said Lazo. The frustrating piece is that anyone who is receiving benefits has, at one point, produced their documents. “But a lot of times, it’s red tape to get copies of what’s in your own file,” Lazo said.

That leaves the burden on unsheltered people and families to keep track of a few critical pieces of paper, Lazo said, or risk losing housing opportunities. 

“Can you imagine: you’re trying to figure out where you’re gonna lay your head, and everything you own is in a backpack, and it gets stolen? I’ve had clients who had their bag stolen and their green card was in it. You practically have to give blood, mail everything in, and wait,” Lazo said.

Nelima Sitati-Munene, executive director of The African Career, Education & Resource, Inc. (ACER), is no stranger to the process immigrants undergo to obtain housing in Minnesota. She immigrated herself before becoming an advocate. ACER works with elected officials, community groups, and stakeholders to increase the stock of truly affordable housing in Minnesota.

“We have these restrictive ID laws—it’s a Catch-22. They’re asking someone to get this documentation that the state tells me I cannot have without another form of identification, which I also don’t have. It puts people in an impossible situation.”

“We have these restrictive ID laws—it’s a Catch-22,” Sitati-Munene said. “They’re asking someone to get this documentation that the state tells me I cannot have without another form of identification, which I also don’t have. It puts people in an impossible situation.”

For example, the Coordinated Entry System, the statewide approach to organizing services for unhoused people, is the mechanism used to move people from shelter to permanent housing. Documentation is not required during the assessment process, Hewitt said.

But the assessment then refers people to housing programs that almost always require that each member of the family provide various forms of ID, including Social Security cards, state-issued IDs, and/or birth certificates.

A Social Security card requires proof of citizenship and a state-issued ID. Getting a state-issued ID requires one primary and one secondary form of identification—say, a birth certificate and a Social Security card. 

Someone in shelter may also be directed to Housing Support, a program managed by individual counties that subsidizes rent for low-income adults with disabilities. To get approved, an individual needs a state ID, medical insurance card, proof of benefits, Social Security card, and sometimes a statement of need.

“It drives me insane,” said one worker within the Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department, who has done outreach with well over 500 unhoused people. “Because I don’t have a piece of paper or plastic that says who you are, you have to stay outside because there is no place for you.”

(This worker requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about this issue, without approval from human services or public health departments.)

‘People can be very concerned about where their information is going’

Sitati-Munene also works with Black Immigrant Collective, an organization that offers free legal clinics for Black immigrants. She places these seemingly “logistical” barriers in the context of racist policies that have prevented Minnesotans of color and immigrants from accessing stable, permanent housing.

White workers do not understand government-issued IDs from outside the U.S., Sitati-Munene said, and it “continues a type of oppression.” 

The pandemic and continued postal service delays exacerbated the issue. To retrieve forms of ID, applicants needed to pay electronically, provide a delivery address (where they may not live), and wait 2 weeks to a month. With the Social Security office closed, driver’s licenses and notarized birth certificates had to be sent by mail—a tall order for anyone, but especially for communities with a history of being surveilled by law enforcement. 

“There is always a concern for people with having their name down and getting in trouble,” the Hennepin County outreach worker said. “It’s not that they’re paranoid and delusional—it’s real. It’s easier for people to live [outside]. For some folks, that’s better than the work and trust it takes.”

Zalanga describes similar dynamics in the shelter system. The questions asked at the door can feel invasive, she said, and that can set the tone for how someone enters the system.

“People can be very concerned about where their information is going. State surveillance is real. There is a valid concern about people having all this information and having to give it up in order to be able to receive or get housing or shelter.”

Hewitt said Hennepin County “sees anything that slows down or prevents people accessing housing as a problem.” The county, he adds, has responded with events to help people obtain IDs, and efforts to find alternative ways of meeting the requirements when original documents may not be available. Hewitt also cited efforts to scale up the Housing Focused Case Management team for people experiencing homelessness.

But mistrust of the system is not easily undone. For some, one demoralizing experience is one too many.

Hanan Mohamed, an Egyptian citizen and mother who has lived in the U.S. for over 20 years, presents such an example. After leaving her job in 2019 to undergo cancer treatment, Mohamed fell behind on rent and found herself evicted right before the pandemic. She found housing in a free transitional home and applied for Social Security Disability Insurance, expecting that the income could help her find housing again. 

When the denial letter came, citing a lack of adequate documentation, Mohamed described herself as “flattened.” 

“If I could, I would rather work than get help from the county, but I can’t,” she explained. “They think we lie to them and hide money from them.”

Being eligible for benefits doesn’t mean you can manage to receive them

On paper, noncitizens in Minnesota are eligible for various health care and cash assistance programs. In practice, it is hardly so simple.

“People think you’re either a citizen or you’re not. But there’s a lot in between. Some programs the state offers, I’m afraid to apply. I didn’t know I could apply for Section 8. I’m scared. I don’t want to raise an alarm for immigration.”

“People think you’re either a citizen or you’re not. But there’s a lot in between,” D.N. said. “Some programs the state offers, I’m afraid to apply. I didn’t know I could apply for Section 8. I’m scared. I don’t want to raise an alarm for immigration.”

Sitati-Munene said that at Black Immigrant Collective, she sometimes advocates for families where the parent is undocumented and the child is a citizen. “The county will still deny when parents apply for their kids. And the county allows [immigrants] to get benefits for children, but not housing assistance.” 

Consequently, children may get food stamps—but remain homeless.

Even for service workers, there are barriers to navigating the complicated web of electronic case files, applications, agency reports, and more. This system within a system can be impenetrable to the people who are within it. 

Zalanga notes that it’s not just immigrants who find themselves disenfranchised by ID requirements, but wider communities of color. “These ID systems perpetuate white supremacy, given the people who are accessing the system—Black, Indigenous, immigrants,” Zalanga echoed. “It feels really messed up because of the level of displacement that has occurred in the process. Enslaving people, taking them from their homes, then barring them from new homes. To be on Indigenous land, as an Indigenous person, trying to access shelter on your own land—why would you need any sort of ID?”

For D.N., the idea of multiple agencies and personnel hanging on to different parts of her identity is a strong enough deterrent.

“My fear is losing my kids and dealing with the white folks,” she said, lowering her voice as her daughter gently tugged on her pant leg. “They don’t care about my kids.”

‘What I really need is subsidized housing’ 

After more than a year of being unhoused, D.N. found a landlord in April that understood her situation, overlooking her lack of documentation and approving her family for a unit in Minneapolis. But the situation is unsustainable: “What I really need is subsidized housing,” she said. 

As it is, she worries about  falling behind on rent or having the misdemeanor court case derail her progress, she said. If she loses this unit, the odds of finding another sympathetic landlord are slim.

Without a blood test proving she is her father’s daughter, she has no pathway to citizenship, she said. Completing this task would require that her father, who moved back to Liberia, give a blood sample at the U.S. Embassy, which would then need to be shipped overseas for a lab test on U.S. soil. 

D.N. has been told the process comes at a cost of $700.

“What if I take the DNA test, and then I get denied? I don’t know what’s gonna raise a red flag, for who, and when,” she said. “No matter what you do, you can get sent back. You never win.”

Yusra Murad is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis, Minn., and Washington, D.C, where she was previously the health care reporter at Morning Consult.