Committee Summary: House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee

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By J.D. Duggan, Freelance Journalist

The Minnesota House’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy committee met Tuesday to discuss a task force report regarding Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and to forward a bill authored by committee member Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton.

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) Task Force published a report in December that is making the rounds through legislative committees. Rep. Feist’s bill, HF 321, seeks to expedite the process for U-visa applicants.

MMIW report

Indigenous women and girls are murdered or go missing at an alarming rate. 

While they make up about 1% of Minnesota’s population, 8% of all murdered women and girls in the state from 2010-2018 are Indigenous. 

At any given time in the last eight years, 27-54 American Indian women and girls were missing. Presenters said that jurisdiction creates a major obstacle — some reservations cannot be policed by officers from outside communities. 

The MMIW Task Force sought root causes to the issue, finding that colonization and historical trauma play a large role in violence against Indigenous women and girls. 

Other root causes and systemic factors include racism, sexism — including sexual objectification of those women and girls, poverty, lack of housing, involvement in the child welfare system, being a victim of domestic violence and being involved in prostitution and trafficking. Sixty-six percent of Indigenous women have experienced psychological abuse and 56% have faced physical abuse at the hands of an intimate partner.

Committee member Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, said the best way to address sex trafficking is to address poverty and lack of housing.

The extreme disparities of Native American children being involved in the foster care system — a direct effect of the federal government’s practice of throwing Indigenous children into boarding schools until the 1970s — also leads to them moving out at 18 without resources or housing.

“They’re so vulnerable to predators,” and it’s a direct route into sex trafficking, violence and abuse, said Sen. Mary Kunesh, who presented alongside task force members. 

The MMIW Task Force examined methods to track data and looked at relevant policies and institutions — policing, child welfare, coroner practices and other government practices — that could play a role.

The task force found that when an Indigenous woman or girl goes missing or dies under suspicious circumstances, the criminal justice system does not provide fair treatment — and very few convictions are carried out against perpetrators.

Unfortunately, I think for folks on reservations there is a common understanding that these crimes won’t be prosecuted,” a key informant told the task force.

The task force hopes an MMIW Office will be created to “provide ongoing attention to and leadership for this issue,” according to their presentation. It also said addressing racism and allocating funding are key to addressing the crisis, among 20 total mandates.

HF321

Rep. Sandra Feist’s U-visa bill passed through the public safety committee with a vote of 11-6 and will head to the judiciary committee next.

“We’re trying to create consistency in terms of the administrative process and timelines” with the U-visa process, Feist said.

The U-visa is for victims of crimes within the U.S. who have demonstrated that they will be or were helpful in the prosecution of the offender. HF321 helps speed up the process, and does not create new immigrant rights or new law enforcement obligations.

One of the bill’s testifiers, Erica Staab, director of the domestic violence support nonprofit HOPE Center in Faribault, said that “abuse rates among immigrant women are as high as 49.8%, according to a recent national study.” This is almost three times the national average, she said.

The U-visa process can currently take five years, Veena Iyer, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said at the meeting.

Rep. Patricia Mueller said her husband, a pastor, has seen immigrants who abuse the U-visa, pretending to be a victim of a crime, to stay in the country longer. “I am concerned about abuse … how can we hold people accountable?” she asked.

Feist said the U-visa is only for victims of very serious crimes and law enforcement still has discretion about when to sign off on a U-visa.

The bill was forwarded on partisan lines. Besides two Republicans who didn’t vote, all Republicans voted against the bill and all Democrats favored it.


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