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Minnesota’s immigrant community smaller than most, but still cheers reform

WASHINGTON — Minnesota’s immigration numbers are much smaller than those nationally, but reform advocates see the Senate immigration bill’s passage as a sign of hope.

immigration reform rally
Speakers rallied in favor of immigration reform during the 2012 May Day celebration in Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis.

WASHINGTON — State demographer Susan Brower has an easy explanation for Minnesota’s below average population of undocumented immigrants.

“The weather keeps people away, documented and undocumented,” she said with a laugh. “I’m kidding, but it’s also true.”

As the U.S. Senate debated and, last week, passed a massive immigration reform bill, the focus has often been on the United States’s southern border – Mexicans make up nearly 60 percent of the country’s undocumented population, and the bill’s 10-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is contingent on enhanced border security that is at least 90 percent effective, for example.

More than 1,000 miles away from the border, Minnesota’s undocumented population is small relative to the national average, but its immigration reform advocates have still cheered movement Senate passage of an overhaul bill, even as it moves to the House, where passage is less than certain.

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“In the Senate bill, we see something that we’ve worked hard for and that the community really needs,” said John Keller, the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.

Minnesota’s immigration demographics

Specifically, Keller’s group, and most immigration reform advocacy organizations around the country, have praised the bill’s pathway to citizenship for most immigrants here illegally. They need to pay a fine and back-taxes, but after 10 years (and a secured southern border), the United States’ 11 million undocumented immigrants will be on their way to getting a green card.

There were, by Pew Center estimates, about 85,000 undocumented immigrants in Minnesota in 2010 (most immigration data is current through 2010, after the latest census), or about 1.6 percent of the state’s population. The national average is 3.7 percent, and the top five states in the country have rates at 6 percent or above.

Unauthorized immigrants as percent of total population

There were about 85,000 undocumented immigrants in Minnesota in 2010, or about 1.6 percent of the state’s population.

Weather notwithstanding, Brower said two things are keeping Minnesota’s undocumented population down. First, and most obviously, its proximity far north from the southern border, and secondly, the mix of jobs the state offers. According to Pew, undocumented workers are more likely to hold low-skilled jobs, and are especially prevalent in the farming, grounds-keeping and construction trades. 

"Many unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. find work caring for animals and picking fruit — in ranching and farms in Southern/Western U.S.," Brower said in an email. "These are jobs that are very difficult to fill. Minnesota just doesn't have the same demand for that kind of labor since our agricultural products are different."

Minnesota’s legal immigrant population is a bit smaller than nationally, as well. About 7 percent of Minnesotans are foreign-born, compared with 13 percent nationally, but Wilder Foundation research scientist Allison Churilla said the state’s foreign-born population is actually increasing faster than the national average — in Minnesota, it’s tripled since 1990, but only doubled nationally.

Mexican, Hmong and Indian are still the three largest blocs of foreign-born Minnesotans, but the state sees an unusual mix of immigrants on a year-to-year basis. In 2010, African immigrants made up nearly 41 percent of those seeking citizenship in Minnesota — the national average is 9.7 percent, according to Homeland Security figures. On the other end, only 9.6 of Minnesota’s immigrants are from North America, while the national average is 32.3 percent.

Immigrants seeking citizenship by continent of origin

In part, that's due to Minnesota's history of receiving major refugee populations. In the mid-2000s, it was among the top five nationally  in doing so, largely because of the increase in Somalis coming to the United States. The influx of refugees has slowed in recent years, Churilla said, and today is concentrated on those leaving Myanmar. (Refugees, of course, face a different set of rules for coming to the United States and becoming citizens than those who go through the immigration process.)

But even though Minnesota’s immigrant community is smaller than most, advocates are quick to point out the significant impact its has on the state’s economy (activists cite a report from Immigration Policy Center, which walks through the economic implications of the state’s various immigrant communities). 

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“We have a huge purchasing power, we are a critical part of the labor force, tax base and business community," Latino Economic Development Center President Ramon Leon said.

As for the state’s undocumented workers, “This is not a huge number, but the impact is bigger.”

Advocates cheer reform

Since Congress began forging an immigration overhaul, those lobbying for reform have often used economic arguments like that to bolster their position. Heller’s Immigrant Law Center, for example, helped create a business, agriculture and labor coalition to support reform efforts.

That argument is central for groups like Leon’s, who appeared with Sen. Al Franken, Heller and a member of the Minnesota Milk Producers at a Monday press conference praising the bill’s passage, often through an economic lens.

“We don’t always take into consideration the positive economic impact this would make on the economy of the United States,” Leon said in an interview.

But pro-reform groups obviously welcomed Senate passage for more reasons than economics. Heller, for example, said many of the folks he works with stand to benefit from the bill’s family reunification components, which would let spouses and children of immigrants join them in the United States sooner.

Ben Anderson, the lead organizer for the faith-based Minnesota Campaign for Citizenship, said his group is prioritizing the personal stories of immigrants who could potentially gain citizenship under the Senate bill.

“The 11 million are not some mystery, vague number,” he said. “These are many people working and living in our communities, and most going to our churches. … This is our future, and these are our people.”

Anderson said he and his group were happy to see the Senate pass its reform bill last week, even if it spent so much on enhancing border security measures. Liberal groups are especially uncomfortable with the late inclusion of the so-called “surge” that increases funding for border security and provides for a longer wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The surge won broad support in the Senate and helped the bill win 68 votes for final passage, but it’s controversial enough to prompt a Texas Democrat to resign from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus over its potential support for the measure.

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The Immigrant Law Center called the surge a “bitter pill to swallow” when it passed. But Heller said it’s an acceptable compromise given what else is in the bill — and given that the Republican-controlled House is just getting set to put together an immigration package of its own.

“There is a majority of people in Congress who want to see this fixed,” he said. “As long as there is a desire and a commitment to negotiate in the House, the Senate has sent a really strong signal.”

Devin Henry can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry