Minnesota’s foreign-born population: then and now

Minnesota State Demographer Tom Gillaspy
MinnPost photo by Sean Smuda
State Demographer Tom Gillaspy

Foreigners are taking over Minnesota: stealing jobs, slow to learn English and hostile to our way of life.

Complaints aired last night on Lou Dobbs’ latest program on immigration?

No, these attitudes have been around a lot longer. They were expressed a century ago when about 550,000 “foreigners” — more than a quarter of the state’s total population in 1910, mostly from Germany, Norway and Sweden — settled in Minnesota, much to the consternation of the English-speaking residents.

“Go back and get newspapers from 100 years ago and look at the headlines,” says Minnesota State Demographer Tom Gillaspy. “You could take those same headlines and simply change the names of the countries of origin [for foreign born residents] and put them in today’s papers. Not everybody is happy about people coming in, especially from some other country.”

Still, Gillaspy and others are warning that even though people have been coming to the United States and settling in Minnesota for years, the state today is facing special challenges. Failing to provide adequate education and training to foreign-born workers and their children, they argue, imperils Minnesota’s future prosperity. Allowed to fester, the much discussed achievement gap in the state’s schools has the potential to injure business climate more severely than higher taxes.

“The expectation is that because we are going to have more people retiring over time, the growth in our workforce and in our economy is going to rely on migration from other states and immigration from other countries,” Gillaspy said. “Already we are experiencing some of that, but the situation is going to accelerate in the future. Minnesota has historically been a prosperous place because of our worker productivity, which is linked back to education and training — we are a state with a workforce built on quality more than quantity.”

Gillaspy spoke to MinnPost just before a presentation he gave last month to the first-ever meeting of the Ethnic Heritage and New American Working Group, a bipartisan organization established last year by the Legislature to “foster an understanding and appreciation of ethnic and cultural diversity in Minnesota, to identify underutilized resources within the immigrant community, and to facilitate the full participation of immigrants in social, cultural and political life in this state.”

Minnesota’s foreign-born population has been increasing since 1970


Click on chart to enlarge

Source: Census 2006 ACS

Chaired by Sen. Patricia Torres-Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Rod Hamilton, R- Mountain Lake, the 10-person working group includes two other legislators and representatives from business (the Chamber of Commerce, Hormel Foods) and the legal community (the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, Centro Legal).

Employment key factor
In his presentation to the group, Gillaspy revealed that Minnesota is mostly in the middle range among states, ranking 20th in immigration (verses 21st in total population and 19th in total population growth from 2000-07) and 25th in the percentage of its population that is foreign born. Compared to most states, we have a smaller proportion of immigrants coming from Central America and South America (although we receive more immigrants from Mexico than any other country) and a higher ratio from Asia (including the Hmong from Laos and Thailand) and Africa (where the Somalia and Liberian immigrants once lived).

Employment is a dominant factor in the arrival of foreign born residents: They are 8.1 percent of the Minnesota workforce versus 6.6 percent of the total population, and the growth in enrollment for students in English as a Second Language programs is almost directly related to a similar growth in the local employment of the area.

These foreign-born workers are most highly concentrated among the least and most educated of Minnesota workers, with approximately one in eight holding an advanced college degree and nearly one in four without a high school diploma. They permeate industries in the workforce most prominently in restaurant/food service (an estimated 10 per cent), colleges and universities (5 per cent) and hospitals (4 per cent).

Perhaps most significantly, however, nearly half of Minnesota’s foreign born residents are between the ages of 25 and 44, making them a potentially invaluable source of employees in a state with a rapidly aging citizenry.

State economist Tom Stinson has said that Minnesota needs an infusion of productive workers if the state is to maintain prosperity in the years ahead, an opinion buttressed by the research of Gillaspy. The two of them have traveled the state in recent months, sounding the warning about how this change in demographics affects Minnesota’s economic future. 

Minnesota’s foreign-born population concentrated in the 25-44 age range

Source: Census 2006 ACS

Willing to assimilate
Gillaspy said the immigrants are fairly consistent in their willingness and ability to assimilate.

“From all the research that has been done — and of course each group of immigrants is starting from a different position — but when you take everything into consideration, the economic sequencing, the educational ability, and the ability to learn and speak English of the people emigrating to Minnesota over the last couple of decades seems very similar to happened a hundred years ago,” he said. “Most research indicates that things like learning English is proceeding at about same rate as it did 100 years ago.”

What about the criminals, the immigrants who are in this state illegally?

“There are certainly a lot of people talking about illegal or unauthorized immigration,” Gillaspy avers. “It is obviously hard to develop statistics for it, even looking at the documents. For Minnesota, the estimates from the Department of Homeland Security and the Pew Hispanic Center run from about 50,000 to 80,000.

“Those estimates assume we are like the rest of the country, and we are not, so they could be a bit high,” he said. “You see, it is not ‘illegal’ they are classifying, it is actually ‘unauthorized.’ And ‘unauthorized’ includes asylees — people asking for asylum who have been granted temporary protected status by the federal government but don’t yet have legally protected status. Minnesota received quite a few asylees from Liberia during the Liberian war, for example.”

Percentage of Minnesota labor force born in another country

Source: PUMS microdata from 1990 and 2000 Census and 2006 ACS

He adds that asylees are a subset of the refugee population, and that Minnesota usually ranks among the top three states in the number of refugee/asylees accepted each year and has “a substantially higher proportion of refugees and asylees among its immigrant population than any other state” — 26 per cent versus the national average of 8 percent.

Gillaspy hastens to add that the bulk of “unauthorized” residents are not asylees but otherwise “illegal” immigrants.

The race factor

Torres-Ray said that when she saw the huge foreign-born numbers for Minnesota in 1910, “it confirmed some of the other things I have read and gave me a lot of hope. We have gone through this before as a state and we have done very well.”

But Torres-Ray notes that today’s immigration patterns also differ from the past. “One of the big differences between today and the immigration a hundred years ago is the racial aspect,” she said. “We have what you could call browner people today — black coming from Africa and brown coming from Central and South America — versus the more homogenous race of the previous immigrants. It will be interesting to see how much of a difference that makes in Minnesota and in the rest of the country.”

To that end, Gillaspy has one piece of pointed advice: Avoid the mistakes made by Europe.

Since 2000, Minnesota’s foreign-born population has increased by about 83,000, mostly in naturalized citizens

Source: Census and 2006 ACS

“The population of Europe is a bit older than ours and their native-born workforce has been declining for awhile,” he said. “They’ve been shoring it up largely with people from North Africa and the Middle East, and the tendency has been for there to be a physical separation among groups of people.”

The result, he said, is that there are places around Paris known as ‘immigrant areas” confined to immigrants. “These people can feel like they are without a country,” Gillaspy said. “That doesn’t work real well. It creates trouble and the people of Europe are now seeing some of that.

“There is nothing new about tension. If your family came to this country a hundred years ago or more, some of the people already here probably objected quite strongly to them being here. But now I think we can all agree that it is probably a good thing that you and your family are a part of this society. If we know anything, we know that keeping people apart doesn’t seem to work.”

Britt Robson, formerly a staff writer and senior editor at City Pages, covers the state Capitol and politics. He can be reached at brobson [at] minnpost [dot] com.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Smith Smith on 03/13/2008 - 02:39 pm.

    When my Grandparents came to America it was to save their lives and they quickly registered themselves, learning English as best as they could and made themselves useful. Seeing many Hispanic young couples with at least two chidren and speaking no English at all, here in farm country,I suspect that there is nothing that matches at all the circumstances and procedures that my or other people’s Grandparents or parents. Have we given a different group of people, different standards or guide-lines to enter into this Country? With so many people and vanishing resources, the issue may lie more with history but them again, Americans are not very well educated in it.

  2. Submitted by Robb Mitchell on 03/14/2008 - 07:57 am.

    Mary M. Smith, you cite all of the narrow stereotypes about immigration that makes this discussion so vexing. So many people from countries all over the world came here under a wide variety of circumstances. Most came here with the hope and dream of fitting into American culture and prospering (by making themselves useful). Not all, like the Jews, Russians, Somalians, or the Armenians faced genocide but most faced poverty and humiliation such as my Norwegian immigrant family wanted to escape by coming to America.

    When you sit down with grandma and grandpa or more likely great grandmother and great grandfather, they will tell you the fled the old country for their lives. In most cases they are not speaking literally because a gun was not being held to their heads but their extended families were on the brink of starvation.

    Our ancestors acceptance in America had nothing to do with their hopes and dreams, their willingness or lack to learn English, their work ethic – most Hispanics I see in Minnesota are extremely hard working and are bilingual – it had to do with governmental policies.

    I worked for Senator Jacob Javits of New York and he had to fight for practically every single Jewish person who came into New York harbor for the American government to allow them to stay and not be sent back to Nazi death camps. He filibustered on the floor of the Congress for a few more thousand at a time and those were life and death situations.

    Here in Minnesota, I’ve been all over the state and seen enclaves of German, Finish, Italian, Swedish, and Norwegian who continued speaking the native language all the way to their grave. Some found it easy to adapt to speaking English, others not so easy. That’s human nature and not exclusive to a class, religion, or race of people.

    THe fact is, as I think this report by Gllaspy shows, is that our grandparents immigration was met with exactly the same ignorance and bigotry than a new generation of American immigrants face today. Oh how they said terrible things about the Jews being unclean, ungodly, uneducated and a lesser race of people. And they said it about the Norwegians, the Swedes, and the Finns also.

    But what immigrants brought to America is nothing short of amazing. And they will continue to do so. It really is a question of how we as a people deal with ignorance and bigotry in our politicians and policies.

  3. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 03/14/2008 - 10:41 am.

    While I don’t agree with Mary M. Smith’s opinions, I am not happy with the author’s response, which accuses her of contributing to social problems. If you guys want dialogue and honest expression of views by readers of this site, you would do well to confine responses to the ideas expressed and refrain from ad hominem attacks on the posters.

  4. Submitted by Dan Hoxworth on 03/14/2008 - 12:09 pm.

    Tom Gillaspie is a stellar employee of our state. He brings to this volatile arguement a fact-based approach that helps distill the negative stereotypes and the manipulative fear-based politics that are so prevalent with certain politicians including Governor Pawlenty. If only our Governor would spend the time to invite the wisdom of our state’s dedicated public servants like Mr. Gillaspie or State Economist Tom Stinson. From these conversations, he might come to understand that Minnesota needs our newcomers to continue to grow and prosper as a state. This symbiotic relationship is crucial and warrants investment from the State to nurture and sustain it. We clearly have a competitive advantage to other states in welcoming and transitioning refugees into our state. Let’s build off of that advantage and ensure that we are providing the necessary resources to assist our new arrivals to master the English language and prosper economically and socially. In return, they will enrich our culture, our economy and our lives.

    Dan H. Hoxworth
    former President of Neighborhood House &
    creator of the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center for Community Building

  5. Submitted by Robb Mitchell on 03/15/2008 - 08:05 am.

    I think Mary K. Smith simply brought an observation to this discussion about how people, at least perceive a difference between the generations of our ancestors who arrived on these shores and their counterparts today. The revelation in this study and if a person puts some thought into it, unlike the Governor and reactionary Republicans in their re-election year fear based attacks against foreign born or foreign speaking people.

    The politics of fear is tyranny.

    A keystone to the history of the United States of America is enshrined in the base of the statue of Liberty:

    “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

    This is America. America emerged from its willingness to take in the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to be free. It is your Grandparents story and it is also the story of the young Hispanic couple with two children in rural Minnesota.

  6. Submitted by Robb Mitchell on 03/18/2008 - 07:40 am.

    Clearly, an important part of this Ethnic Heritage and New American Working Group report for the legislature is how bigotry and emotional reactions have always played a role in the immigration debate. It is true today and it was true 100 and 150 years ago.

    Hopefully, politicians and governmental policy will not be made based on bigotry, discrimination and fear. Our politicians must have enough leadership and statesmanship (I know the mere mention of these qualities in our politicians today brings on laughter) to act in a civil and unifying fashion rather than fostering division and hatred.

    But it is probably important for us to acknowledge the unfounded fear and hostility in the community and work to build bonds across race, ethnic and nation barriers. Right now, it appears the biggest enemy of understanding is opportunistic politicians and the campaign rhetoric that incites emotional responses to problems that are, in essence, about economic survival, individual opportunity and community vitality.

    We must hold the political leadership accountable and not let them engage in the demagoguery of fear during their election campaigns. But we must also began and healthy dialogue among ourselves about protection and acceptance that will bridge the divid reactionary politics has tried to create.

Leave a Reply