The Minnesota/Dakotas Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) has selected Olga Zoltai and Victor Contreras to receive its 2012 Immigrant of Distinction Awards. They will be honored at a March 2 ceremony.
The award honors immigrants who have made substantial contributions to their communities or professions through exceptional leadership, high achievement, or moral courage. The 2012 honorees exemplify how treating immigrants with dignity strengthens our moral fabric and brings our country great financial benefits. Through a partnership with the Immigration History Research Center, AILA MN/Dakotas produces oral histories archived by the IHRC at the University of Minnesota.
Zoltai and Contreras will receive their awards at a naturalization ceremony on Friday, March 2, 2012, at the University of Minnesota. The event, co-hosted by the Immigration History Research Center, will be followed by a reception honoring the awardees and newly-naturalized U.S. citizens. Seating is limited, but the ceremony will be streamed online.
Olga Zoltai has spent over 50 years in public service, helping refugees and other immigrants settle in Minnesota. In 1971, Ms. Zoltai was the sole immigration counselor at the International Institute of Minnesota. Over the next 22 years, she managed and expanded the program, helping many thousands of immigrants come to Minnesota, including the first Hmong refugees.
She founded the Minnesota Hungarians, which helped Hungarian immigrants adjust to life in the United States and preserve their culture. She has also worked on humanitarian projects in her native Hungary, providing aid to Hungarian Unitarian churches in repressed Transylvanian villages and helping establish sustainable agriculture there. In her community and among her peers, she was well known for tirelessly pursuing "impossible" cases until they succeeded.
In 1989, she was invited to attend a White House ceremony announcing the US government's decision to grant Hungary Most Favored Nation status. On the occasion of her retirement in 1993, the Star Tribune referred to her in a headline as the "Patron Saint" of area immigrants.
A refugee herself, Ms. Zoltai escaped war-torn Hungary in 1945 and fled to Austria where she met her future husband, Tibor. The couple immigrated to Alberta, Canada, where they labored in sugar beet fields as indentured agricultural workers. Later they moved to Massachusetts, where Tibor completed a graduate program at MIT, and then to Minnesota in 1959. Tibor, a distinguished immigrant in his own right, passed away in 2003. They have three children and six grandchildren. At 80 years old, Ms. Zoltai plans to travel to India to learn about illiterate girls and an agricultural union involved in helping the poor.
Victor Contreras is a third-generation migrant worker from Mexico who began coming to Minnesota on a seasonal basis in 1990. Although he resembles millions of other migrants who have benefited the U.S. agriculture industry with their labors, his story stands out. After witnessing the poor conditions that his fellow laborers faced, he and some colleagues began organizing on their behalf, eventually forming Centro Campesino in Owatonna. In 2000, they won concessions from Chiquita Canning company, including the provision of a childcare facility, hot water, new beds, appliances, separate bathrooms, and a storm shelter in the worker's camp.
As an active leader in the organization until his retirement last summer, he and Centro Campesino greatly aided migrants by improving working conditions at area companies, helping secure passage of the Improving State Protections For Migrant Workers Act (which formalized worker protections into law), and filing a lawsuit on behalf of a dozen families who were discriminated against and displaced by a city in southeast Minnesota. They have also assisted students, winning passage in 2009 of the Flat Rate Tuition Bill, which ensures in-state tuition to all residents of the state, regardless of their background. Originally undocumented, Mr. Contreras benefited from the legalization program established under Ronald Reagan and obtained his U.S. citizenship in 2000.
He lives with his wife, Gloria, in Owatonna. He has two children and one grandchild. Although he is retired, he continues to assist Minnesota immigrants, striving for justice and dignity in the face of adverse circumstances.
Due to limited seating, the March 2 event will be live streamed so it can be viewed from other locations. Follow these instructions if you would like to view the broadcast.
Before the event:
1) Test Your Computer - To test your computer and make sure that you have the Silverlight Plugin installed visit http://mediasite.uvs.umn.edu/Mediasite/Viewer/?peid=c1748f2d1da8467aa8b415e79b94b020
2) If you are unable to view video and hear audio on this test, you will need to make sure that the Microsoft Silverlight plugin is installed. This free plugin installation can be found here: http://www.microsoft.com/getsilverlight/Get-Started/Install/Default.aspx
3) After installing this plugin, test again to verify the video/audio stream.
Joining and Participating in the event:
1) Join the event 10 minutes early. Go to:
Please note: The event will be live streamed and will not be available later.