Tensions over immigration have been making headlines across Minnesota in recent years.
Last year, St. Cloud discussed a measure that would put a moratorium on refugee resettlement in the city (instead, it was one of several Minnesota cities that passed symbolic welcome resolutions). In Willmar, a Somali-American was allegedly harassed as he sold vegetables at a farmers market. In Worthington, the mayor denounced a sign that read “Welcome to Worthington, Mexico. Formerly known as Worthington, Minnesota.”
But for all the apparent concern about the number of immigrants in Minnesota, the share of immigrants in the state right now is actually pretty low, by historical standards. Today, less than 10 percent of Minnesotans were born in a foreign country. In the late 1800s, it was more than a third.
Since 1850, the U.S. Census has been asking people who live in Minnesota (which became a state in 1858) where they were born. The data show not only the changing proportion of immigrants making up the state’s population, but give a clue to the world events that drove people to pick up stakes and call the North Star State home.
There are some caveats: Early Censuses didn’t systematically count American Indians. Much of the 1890 Census data was destroyed in a fire and the 1970 data don’t include all Minnesotans. The responses to Census questions are self-reported based on question wording that varied across decennial questionnaires. MinnPost assigned geographies based on current boundaries, but some areas — like former jurisdictions in Europe now split between Poland and Germany — are approximate.
Between 1850 and 1900, Minnesota’s population grew rapidly. A tidal wave of immigration from European countries was responsible for a sizable chunk of this growth.
Millions left European countries for the shores of the United States in the 19th and early 20th century. At that time, a combination of population growth and inheritance customs made land increasingly hard to come by for many would-be farmers. Others left to escape mandatory military service, were lured by the promise of industrial jobs in American cities or sought religious freedom in the U.S.
Then there were country-specific factors that pushed European immigrants to the U.S. In the decades following the potato famine in Ireland, which started in the mid-1840s, the share of Minnesotans who were born in Ireland was 5 percent or greater.
The state’s Finnish-born population grew after 1900, around the time Russia began a campaign to Russify its smaller neighbor, causing many to flee the country. Finns, at one point, made up the largest share of foreign-born residents of Minnesota’s Iron Range.
While European immigration largely defined the makeup of Minnesota for decades, growth in the native population and a dropoff in immigration by the second half of the 20th century meant only about 5 percent of Minnesotans were born in Europe by 1960. Today, that number is only about 1 percent.
Musician Luis Garzón was the first Latino to settle permanently in Minnesota. In 1886, he got sick while touring with his Mexican orchestra in Minneapolis. As he recuperated, he fell in love with a Minnesota woman and decided to make a home here, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.
Immigrants from Latin America have long been a part of Minnesota’s history. But until more recent decades, many came as migrant workers, and it was relatively rare for them to stay.
That is, until about 1990, when the number Minnesotans born in Central and South American countries began to see an increase, as tough economic situations and a series of calamities in some countries prompted immigration north.
The number of foreign-born Minnesotans from Honduras increased after a devastating 1998 hurricane caused many to flee the country. Salvadorans left their home country in large numbers after devastating earthquakes in 2001, and many Colombians emigrated to the United States to escape civil war drug conflict.
In 2000, for the first time, immigrants from Central and South America made up more than 1 percent of Minnesota’s population. By 2010, that share was around 2 percent.
The metro areas with the largest shares of Minnesotans born in Latin America can be found in Worthington (13 percent), Austin (5 percent), Faribault and Willmar (3 percent). Two percent of Twin Cities residents were born in Latin America.
Immigrants from Asia were targeted in particular by federal anti-immigration laws, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1924.
Those policies were eventually eased, but it wasn’t until the 1980s when Minnesota really started seeing an increase in the share of its population born in Asia.
That’s when the state saw an influx of Vietnamese leaving their home country in the wake of the Vietnam War and a communist government takeover. In the 1980s, Minnesota became a major refugee resettlement site for Laotians, whose country was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War.
The Twin Cities and Worthington have the largest shares of residents born in Asia, at 4 percent. In Rochester, 3 percent of residents were born in Asia.
A decade after Minnesota saw its Asia-born population start to increase, newcomers from another continent started making up a larger share of the state’s population: Africa.
By 1990, the share of Minnesotans born in Africa saw a sizable increase.
Civil war, drought, ethnic conflict, famine and drought prompted Ethiopian migration to the U.S. in the 1980s. After famine and civil war broke out in Somalia in the 1990s, many who sought asylum ended up in Minnesota, now home to one of the the largest Somali populations outside the East African country. Refugees from Liberia began arriving in Minnesota in the 1990s as their home country, likewise, was torn by civil war.
Willmar has the highest share of Africa-born residents of any Minnesota metro area, at 3 percent, followed by Worthington, the Twin Cities, Faribault, St. Cloud, Rochester and Marshall (2 percent).
MinnPost’s coverage of New Americans in Greater Minnesota is made possible by the Blandin Foundation, with additional support from the Marbrook Foundation, the West Central Initiative Foundation, the Southwest Initiative Foundation, the Solidarity MN collaborative, and the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.