It’s not, but this could easily be the story of an Irish, Italian or Jewish person who arrived in the United States a century ago, speaking no English, and having virtually no money. Instead, this is the story of Valeria Silva, and thousands of other Minnesota immigrants. A fascinating report, “The Economic Impact of Immigrants in Minnesota,” helps describe their impact in suburbs, greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities.
Twenty-four years ago, Valeria Silva came here from Chile. She spoke no English, and had almost no money in her pocket. Last week, the St. Paul School Board, on a 7-0 vote, named her its next superintendent of schools.
Silva already has achieved a great deal, including helping to design, develop and then supervise an extremely successful approach to teaching English to students whose families don’t speak it at home. Research found that the approach Silva helped design, and that she oversaw, virtually eliminated academic gaps between native English-speaking students and those who had to learn the language.
St. Paul non-English speaking students have shown more progress than those in any other major urban district. The Obama administration has asked Silva for help. I’ve found her to be humble and hard-working.
An effective bridge-builder
Silva was a real bridge-builder on a committee convened by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. The committee was asked to develop specific goals for increasing the number of students who graduated fully prepared from St. Paul district and charter public schools, and graduated from some form of higher education. Silva skillfully showed people from the district and charters, along with higher education, how pointing fingers at each other was not productive. Far more effective, she helped committee members understand, was understanding that both K-12 educators and higher-education educators needed to make some changes if there is going to be significant progress.
Silva is just one of millions of immigrants who have and are contributing to the United States. A recent report by Humphrey Institute professor Katherine Fennelly and master’s candidate Anne Huart provides state and national evidence of this.
“The Economic Impact of Immigrants in Minnesota” points out that:
• 334,000 Minnesotans in 2007 were born in another country, 6.5 percent of state population.
• Immigrant-owned businesses generated $331 million in net income to Minnesota in 2000.
• The Number of Hispanic-owned businesses in Minnesota has grown 350 percent since 1990.
• Foreign-born workers represent the majority of growth in the Minnesota’s labor force.
• If immigrants were removed from Minnesota’s labor force, there would be a loss of 24,000 jobs and $1.2 billion in personal income.
• Children of immigrants are keeping many Greater Minnesota schools from closing or consolidating.
The report also shares important national statistics:
• Immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes: In 2000, the rate of incarceration for non-immigrant males, ages 18-39 was five times that of immigrant males.
• The U.S. Council of Economic Advisors estimates that this country’s net gain from immigration is $37 billion per year.
• Nationally immigrants represent 25 percent of physicians and 40 percent of engineers who hold doctoral degrees.
• The U.S. Labor Department says we have an immediate shortage of 126,000 nurses. But getting permission to come to the United States to work as a nurse currently takes an average of six years. Greater Minnesota faces a shortage of 6,000 registered nurses in the next decade.
• Immigrants are most costly when they first arrive, or are in school, or retire. Over their lifetime, immigrants provide a net benefit to state and national economies.
Fennelly and Huart concluded, “Comprehensive immigration reform is necessary for the state to continue to realize the financial benefits of immigration.” They see a “critical need for local efforts to insure full social and economic integration of immigrants.”
Valeria Silva helps show why this report is right.
Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Located at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, the center will move to Macalester College Jan. 1.