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As U.S. considers admitting more Syrian refugees, will Minnesota be a top destination?

While agencies don’t anticipate an immediate upswing in refugees, Minnesota’s history and current conditions may make it an attractive place to settle in the long run.

In light of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria, President Obama announced last week a major increase in the number of Syrian refugees that would be allowed to come to the U.S.
REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Minnesota has long been a home for those fleeing hardship and seeking opportunity. So when President Barack Obama announced last week that the United States would take in an additional 10,000 refugees displaced by the brutal civil war in Syria, it was natural to wonder: would they be settling in the North Star state?

The administration said the refugees would arrive over the course of the next fiscal year — which would rapidly swell the current Syrian refugee population in the U.S., which numbers about 1,600. Several Minnesota members of Congress hailed Obama’s announcement, and two in particular — Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Keith Ellison — have been pushing for an aggressive response for months.

Minnesota state officials and nonprofit leaders say they do not anticipate a large number of Syrians to arrive overnight — or even in the next year. But Minnesota’s history of accepting refugees, along with a range of quality of life factors that could appeal to Syrians, might make Minnesota a leading destination for Syrian refugees — if not now, then several years from now.

Minnesota: history as refuge

While Minnesota has welcomed foreign migrants since its founding as a state, it has only grown into a top refugee resettlement destination in the past 50 years or so. In the late 1970s, many Vietnamese and Cambodians facing post-war political persecution — some dubbed “boat people,” after the makeshift rafts they used to escape — fled to the U.S.

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Millions left, and roughly 4,000 ended up in Minnesota. Walter Mondale, who was vice president at the height of the crisis, played a major role in pushing the U.S., and the international community, to aid the refugees.

Shortly after, in the 1980s, Minnesota began to accept large numbers of Hmong, an ethnic minority in Southeast Asia that faced persecution after the U.S. wars in the region ended. They were re-settled all over the country, but an estimated 65,000 Hmong live in the Twin Cities area, which is often called the capital of Hmong culture in the U.S.

Most recently, Minnesota has been a magnet for Somalis, who first arrived in the Twin Cities as immigrants in the 1980s and then as refugees in 1993, after that country’s still-ongoing civil war began. It’s estimated that nearly 90,000 ethnic Somalis now reside in Minnesota.

Recent trends

True to its history, Minnesota continues to be a top destination for refugees resettling in the United States. According to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, Minnesota received 2,232 refugees from 24 countries during fiscal year 2014. Nearly half of those refugees arrived from Somalia, and a third, from Myanmar, nearly all belong to the Karen ethnic group, which faces persecution from that country’s regime. The other refugees hail from nations including Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Ukraine.

Countries of origin for refugees settling in Minnesota, FY2014

As of August 31 of this year, 1,948 refugees have arrived in Minnesota, putting it on pace to equal or surpass last year’s figures. Only a trickle of refugees from Syria has arrived in the state so far, as the Star Tribune reported last week.

U.S. Destinations for Syrian refugees, 2012–2015
According to federal reports, since 2012 the U.S. has accepted more than 1,500 Syrian refugees. Top destinations for the refugees include highly populated states like Texas and California, as well as states with large established Arab communities, like Michigan.

In 2014, Minnesota did not crack the top ten states in terms of raw numbers of refugees received: populous states like Texas (7,214), California (6,108) and New York (4,082) are their most common destinations. But Minnesota punches far above its weight when you look at the numbers on a per capita basis. It took in 0.41 refugees per 1,000 residents, while Texas took in 0.26, California 0.15, and New York 0.2. Minnesota’s rate was about twice that of the U.S. as a whole of 0.22 refugees per 1,000 people.

Only a few states took in more refugees per capita than Minnesota, but they tended to be sparsely populated — Vermont, South Dakota, and Idaho, for example.

Though they are usually resettled to a specific place, refugees are free to relocate themselves if they wish. Data collected by the Office of Refugee Resettlement indicates that Minnesota is, far and away, the most popular secondary destination. In 2012, 2,133 refugees arrived in Minnesota from within the country — more than double the amount from the next most popular state, Florida. Only 107 refugees left Minnesota for another state.

An ideal destination

So why has Minnesota become such a home for international refugees? It’s not the weather: experts say the most important pull factor is the existence of a powerful, humanitarian nonprofit sector in Minnesota. These NGOs play a huge role in the resettlement of refugees: while it’s up to several federal government agencies, including the departments of State and Homeland Security, to decide who can come to the U.S., they rely on the private sector to facilitate some of the most important aspects of relocation.

To that end, the State Department contracts with a number of voluntary agencies to ensure refugees have a way to obtain housing and other resources once in the country. Minnesota happens to have several top-tier agencies — Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities, for example — that are actively involved in resettling refugees to Minnesota.

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For now, these organizations appear to be letting other states take the lead on resettlement. Catholic Charities of the Twin Cities told MinnPost they aren’t involved in Syrian refugee cases at this time, and others told the Pioneer Press that they did not expect many Syrians in the foreseeable future, saying that other states have more resources to take on their cases.

State officials also told the Star Tribune that Minnesota may not be a major refugee destination due to its lack of an established Syrian-American community. (Syrians, who have lived in the U.S. since at least the late 19th century, have traditionally migrated to the New York City area, Boston, and Detroit.)

The right conditions

That being said, these organizations may get involved in resettlement down the road — especially if the government allows more refugees into the country. Simply put, Minnesota is an exceptionally good place for refugees, explains Ryan Allen, an associate professor and refugee policy expert at the University of Minnesota.

In deciding where to place refugees, agencies look for areas with strong local job markets, sufficient space in quality school districts, affordable housing, and a decent public transportation infrastructure. The Twin Cities area, Allen says, scores high in all of these categories.

And while few Syrians call the Twin Cities home, Allen says that the wide availability of Muslim places of worship — thanks to the large Somali community — could be an important draw for Syrians. Given that far more refugees arrive in Minnesota from within the U.S. than depart, it’s possible that secondary migration to the state could occur later on, too.

Overall, Allen says, “the Twin Cities are well-positioned to do its part in resettling Syrian refugees.”

Minnesota representatives call for action

Given the state’s history and current status as a home for refugees, it makes sense that a few of Minnesota’s national politicians have led the push for the U.S. to accept more refugees from Syria — though none have explicitly called for Minnesota to be a major resettlement location.

Before the current crisis was leading the news here, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, sent a letter to Obama saying that the U.S. “must also dramatically increase the number of Syrian refugees that we accept for resettlement,” calling it a “moral obligation.”

Rep. Keith Ellison, whose Fifth District is home to most of Minnesota’s Somalis, also sent a letter to Obama, shortly before the administration announced the ramp-up in refugee admission. “Now, more than ever, we need to live up to our history by increasing the number of Syrian refugees allowed to resettle in the United States,” Ellison wrote.

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Minnesota members of Congress had mixed reactions to the number that the White House announced. “Ten thousand is not enough,” Ellison said in a statement. “Aren’t we the people who say, ‘give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses’? We must do more for families who are not safe in their own homeland.”

To other representatives of both parties, the refugee crisis is a moment of reckoning — for the other party. “The U.S. should certainly resettle more refugees, including Syrians, but this Republican Congress will make that very difficult by refusing to appropriate the necessary funds to ensure our national security through that process,” said Rep. Betty McCollum in a statement.

“The tragic images of Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives is a moment of reckoning for President Obama’s overall strategy in the Middle East and North Africa,” said Rep. Tom Emmer. “With no notice in Congress, the President announced an increase to 10,000 refugees in a press conference. At this time we need more information, specifically, what this number will do in terms of refugee caps, funding, placement and resettlement.”

Indeed, while the President can direct his administration to take in more refugees, Congress decides how funds are allocated to the agencies that carry out resettlement. It’s unclear how that will shake out: refugee resettlement is a very costly, time-consuming process, involving months — and sometimes years — of security background checks and other logistics. “There is no group of immigrants coming to the U.S. that are more scrutinized than refugees,” the U of M’s Allen says, adding that the vetting process can be “sophisticated and overbearing.”  

Because of that, he says, “it’s hard to see that we could substantially increase the number of refugees quickly,” though he didn’t rule it out.

Allen says the upcoming political debates, and logistical wrangling, will be a challenge. In any case, he says that Minnesota can be counted on to play a big role. “Minnesota is a state that is aware of humanitarian crisis and will step up and do its part…I’m not suggesting other states aren’t, but Minnesota has always been attuned to humanitarian issues, and has a long history of taking that very seriously.”