A Force for Good
Chief Deputy Attorney General John Keller wants to protect the rights of all Minnesotans.
Growing up as the youngest of eight siblings on a dairy farm outside of Stillwater, John Keller never imagined he’d spend his career as a lawyer. “I doubt I ever knew a lawyer,” says Keller (B.A ’92), sitting in a high-ceilinged conference room in the Minnesota State Capitol, where he serves as the state’s chief deputy attorney general. “If my dad ever talked about a lawyer, it probably wasn’t a fun discussion.”
That perspective changed in 1988 when Keller, having completed his sophomore year as a Peace Studies major at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, had the opportunity to take a year off to work for a human rights nonprofit in Lima, Peru. The South American country was in the midst of a crisis. Unemployment was rampant and the government—long a violator of human rights—had implemented economic shock policies that sent inflation soaring. The Shining Path rebels were also terrorizing urban areas with bombings and assassinations.
It was in this setting that Keller met a nonprofit lawyer who was valiantly working to document the human rights abuses by all sides so that he could present his findings to the United Nations. The experience, Keller remembers, was a revelation.
“It was just eye-opening to see a lawyer and an organization doing that kind of work in the midst of an extremely precarious and challenging environment,” he remembers. Law, Keller realized, could be a tool for social justice.
After returning to Minnesota in spring 1989, Keller transferred to the U of M. He says the U was attractive to him because it offered a Latin American studies major, was more affordable, and had a more socially and economically diverse campus than St. John’s. He completed studies for his fall quarter before returning to Peru in January 1990. Six months later, he married Maria Keller Flores, a Peruvian whom he’d met during his previous stay. (Today, after being married for 29 years, the couple have three kids between the ages of 28 and 18.)
The young couple returned to Minnesota in August 1990. Keller says his wife’s paperwork was the first immigration form he ever filled out. “Fortunately, I didn’t mess it up,” he jokes. Keller says the flexibility the U offered him in taking independent study and evening classes while he worked full time and was a new dad was crucial to him finishing his undergraduate degree. To save costs, they lived with family in Stillwater.
Keller received his undergraduate degree in 1992 and entered law school at Hamline University in 1993, graduating in 1996. After a year clerking for the Minnesota Court of Appeals, he joined the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota (ILCM), a nonprofit that provides legal representation for new Americans and promotes public policies that benefit them. He stayed at ILCM for more than 20 years, becoming the executive director in 2005. While working at ILCM, he also served as a policy fellow at the U’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs from 2007 to 2008.
“We were committed to taking on complex cases because we believe that people deserve a second chance,” he says of his work at ILCM. During his tenure, the nonprofit expanded its mission to include public policy research and advocacy. Today the organization works with government officials, labor unions, and other organizations that support immigrants and refugees to advance immigration policies that meet the needs of local economies, while also respecting immigrants’ human rights.
In 2013, ILCM was instrumental in passing the Minnesota Dream Act, which provides education benefits to undocumented students who meet certain requirements. The organization also provided assistance at the federal level to pass Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that offered undocumented residents who were brought to the U.S. as children work permits and temporary protection from deportation. (The Trump administration issued orders to rescind this program in 2017, but ongoing legal challenges have forced the government to postpone terminating it. The Supreme Court will hear the case in its next term.)
In 2013, Keller was also part of a team that launched the James H. Binger Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School. The Center was created in response to the unmet need for pro-bono legal services in Minnesota’s immigrant and refugee communities.
“The work he did at ILCM speaks to the quality of the collaboration and the breadth of the advocacy John has always pursued,” says Benjamin Casper Sanchez, director of the Center for New Americans at the U of M. “We would be much worse off, especially during this period, if ILCM hadn’t been developed under his leadership.”
Quiet and self-effacing, Keller doesn’t seem to view his many accomplishments as anything to crow about. So, when he received a phone call in November 2018 from newly elected Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (J. D. ‘90), Keller assumed Ellison wanted to discuss how the attorney general’s office could network with ILCM.
In fact, Ellison was calling to ask Keller to be his second in command.
“It was his combination of experience, leadership, and values that made me know John Keller was the right fit for chief deputy attorney general,” says Ellison. “First, John showed he knows how to grow a law firm, and I knew we needed to grow the Attorney General’s Office after years of no growth. Second, John inspires confidence in people as a leader because he’s organized, purposeful, clear about expectations, honors other people’s strengths, and is steady and kind. Finally, I wanted someone with a track record of commitment to social and economic justice, and there’s no one in Minnesota who’s stood more consistently on the side of justice than John.”
In addition to serving immigrants and refugees, Keller now advocates for every Minnesotan. “To work with a team of 130 attorneys is a dream for someone who wants to use the law for good,” says Keller. “And I couldn’t think of a better place to do that than working at an organization whose mission it is to defend the rights and opportunities for all of Minnesota.”