During his first year as Minnesota's chief deputy attorney general, John Keller has continued to be one of the state’s most ardent defenders of the rights of immigrants and refugees. Credit: Erica Loeks | Sahan Journal

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Like thousands of his fellow Minnesotans, John Keller was working from home last week. In his role as Minnesota’s chief deputy attorney general, Keller and his colleagues—who work under Attorney General Keith Ellison—have been involved in much of the legal backstopping and research around Governor Tim Walz’s COVID-19-related executive orders. His office also has been laboring to assess and respond to the pandemic’s impact on Minnesota’s immigrant communities.

Keller’s three adult children were back in the house and, thankfully, so was his wife, Maria Keller Flores. She had been visiting her family in Peru when, on the evening of March 15, that country issued a state of emergency and closed all borders. Keller Flores, who is a licensed clinical social worker, had to take a bus from the small town where her family lives to another town, where she then was able to make her way to Lima in order to get a seat on a charter flight back to the United States.

John Keller, who grew up on a dairy farm in Stillwater, Minnesota, met his wife in the late 1980s, when he took a year off from college to work for a human rights nonprofit in Lima. The South American country was in a period of extreme distress; in addition to the damage being done by the Shining Path rebels, the government was implementing economic policies that were cratering the economy. 

It was in this context that Keller found the love of his life. But that year in Peru also included a life-changing encounter with a lawyer who was documenting human rights abuses in the country, which he in turn would present to the United Nations. It was a proverbial lightbulb moment, where the young Peace Studies major at St. John’s University in Collegeville realized that the law could help rectify injustice and even prevent human suffering. He earned his law degree from Hamline University in 1996.

Ever since, Keller has been focused on human rights and justice issues, most prominently during his twenty-year tenure at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to low-income immigrants and refugees, where he served as the executive director from 2005 until 2019.

During his time there, he expanded the Law Center’s mission to include advocacy and public policy research. On Keller’s watch, the organization helped pass the Minnesota Dream Act and the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Keller also was part of a team that, in 2013, launched the James H. Binger Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School, which provides pro-bono legal services.

He was chosen by Attorney General Keith Ellison to serve as his chief deputy (Ellison cited Keller’s track record of fighting for economic and social justice) and started the job in February 2019. During his first year, he has continued to be one of the state’s most ardent defenders of the rights of immigrants and refugees.

“My parents never went to college—we were not wealthy at all—yet, I knew I would go to college like my seven brothers and sisters before me,” he said, by way of explaining why he felt drawn to this profession. “The randomness of my birth filled with opportunity was so blatantly different from the majority of those I met who were born into poverty. . .  As I tried to puzzle out this cruel trick of the fate of births, the only thing that came close to making any sense was to try to use every opportunity I could to make a difference for as many people as I could.”

Last August, Minnesota joined twelve other states to file a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s expansion of the “public charge” rule, which gives the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the authority to deny entry or green cards to legal immigrants who access public services including food stamps and Medicaid. (The DHS has exempted testing and treatment for COVID-19.)

The U.S. Supreme Court confirmed in February that the new rules could take effect. The ruling sanctioned the expansion while litigation proceeds in several courts across the country, including in Minnesota.

“These changes are an attack on legal immigrants, on modest-incomed immigrants, on the elderly, and those who don’t speak English,” Keller said. “All of these people have a legal basis to immigrate to the U.S. under decades and decades of law and policy. For that reason, we will resolutely continue to work with our partners in other states to stop the anti-family and anti-working-class policies at the heart of the administration’s proposed public charge changes.”

Keller and the Attorney General’s office also filed a friend-of-the-court brief in March 2019 to protect Liberians who are beneficiaries of Deferred Enforced Departure—which allows people from designated countries to stay in the U.S. temporarily—from deportation. Many Liberians have lived in Minnesota for decades and would face dangerous conditions in their home country should they be forced to return. The brief argued that children born in the U.S. to Liberian parents face mental health challenges, including depression and anxiety, because they are fearful about their parents’ uncertain status. As a result of this advocacy, the Trump administration extended Liberians’ status for an additional year, which bought time for them to be granted permanent residency.

Another AG office win included joining forces with other states to ensure that a question about citizenship was not included in the 2020 U.S. Census. Keller says he’s been using his Spanish in regular meetings with Minnesota’s Latino communities to help them understand the importance of the census in hopes of a high compliance rate.

Today, Keller is concerned about the wellbeing of Minnesota’s immigrant communities now that the COVID-19 pandemic is upon us. He says there was an almost immediate backlash toward people who are Asian, including what he describes as “really ugly reports of mistreatment, hate crimes, and discrimination.” The AG’s office is currently collaborating with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, the Department of Public Safety, and Governor Tim Walz’s office to thwart this kind of discrimination. (You can report incidents through a state helpline at 1-833-454-0148 or via this online form.)

Keller is particularly concerned about the economic challenges being faced by undocumented immigrant workers, who, despite being essential to the federal and state economies, are ineligible for most formal government relief and protections. “We depend on these people,” he said. “But [then we] pretend they’re not there right at this moment when they have nothing.”

“There’s real concern from myself and others about how families who can’t access traditional emergency aid continue to survive, continue to keep their residences when they no longer have their jobs,” he said, noting that the city of Minneapolis has enacted a program to help cover rent and utilities for low-income people and small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, regardless of immigration status.

Additionally, Keller and his colleagues are working to protect Minnesotans from price gouging, after witnessing increases in prices for rice and other high-demand items. And they were recently granted the authority to protect Minnesotans from being evicted from their homes during the pandemic.

“We know that many immigrants and mixed-status families that were already feeling targeted during these last three years have been made to feel even more vulnerable because of the pandemic and the uncertainty of access to health care or emergency funding,” Keller said. “In the days and weeks to come, we will continue to look for new opportunities for the Attorney General’s office to address issues that can make a difference in people’s lives during these uncertain and troubling times.”

Elizabeth Foy Larsen

Elizabeth Foy Larsen has written for publications including the New York Times, Mother Jones, and the StarTribune. Her last story for Sahan Journal was about Minnesota Chief Deputy Attorney General John...