A new report by University of Minnesota Prof. Katherine Fennelly suggests that, rather than seeing immigrants as little more than a drain on the state’s economy, Minnesota ought to be welcoming them as a key positive economic influence.
“School enrollments are declining, but things would be worse without immigrant children,” she says. “Main streets are closing up, but new businesses are being bought and run by immigrants.”
Fennelly, who teaches at the university’s Humphrey Institute, is an internationally recognized expert on immigration, and how communities deal demographic changes.
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Based on census data, her report says there were 334,000 foreign-born Minnesotans in 2007, representing about 6.5 percent of the state’s population. By crunching that figure with data from the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Fennelly estimates that about 60,000-80,000 of those immigrants are living here without the proper documentation. Some have over-stayed legal visas, while others have entered the country without visas. Either way, the report says, the vast majority of them are here to work — and have secured jobs.
The pace of change has been swift, however. Between 1990 and 2000, the foreign-born population in Minnesota grew by 130 percent compared with a 57 percent increase nationwide, the study says. That rate of growth has slowed in recent years.
The arrival of these immigrants coincides with demographic trends that are putting a strain on many Minnesota communities.
- Baby boomers are aging and becoming economically dependent, rather than economic producers: Minnesota will have more retirees drawing on Medicare than it will have elementary school students by 2020.
- Minnesotans, led by younger generations, are leaving the state: From 2000-2006, almost half of Minnesota’s counties experienced net population declines.
- The number of Minnesotans without a high school diploma was almost cut in half, from 17 percent to 8 percent, from 1990-2000, as the demand for low-skilled, low-paid workers has risen.
Immigrants are helping fill the void let by these trends, Fennelly says.
- Immigrant-owned businesses in Minnesota generated $331 million in net income in 2000.
- Hispanic-owned firms in the state have grown 350 percent since 1990.
- Foreign-born workers account for the majority of growth in the labor force in Minnesota.
- If immigrants were removed from the labor force, Minnesota would lose over 24,000 permanent jobs and $1.2 billion in personal income.
- On the national level, the Social Security Administration says undocumented immigrants contribute about $8.5 billion in Social Security and Medicare taxes every year.
Among rural counties that have experienced a heavy influx of Latino immigrants in recent years, including in Minnesota, the report finds:
- Lower rates of welfare per household, and a faster decline in new welfare cases.
Higher median family incomes and per capita incomes, as well as higher median incomes among non- Hispanic whites.
- Higher median home values.
- Less per-capita spending on education and public welfare.
- Significantly larger reductions in overall arrest rates and arrests for violent and alcohol-related crimes.
- No statistically significant difference in property crimes.
The economic burdens that are generated by immigrants — such as the cost of educating children who don’t speak English as their first language — tend to be short term, Fennelly says. And she challenges the notion that such programs should be thought of as a cost at all.
“We don’t look at ourselves as costing the system anything,” she says of long-time Minnesota residents. Why should that be different for immigrants who are generating a net plus for the state’s economy? “Why not look at it as an investment?”
“School closings get headlines,” she says. “But immigrant children are presented as a problem,” even though their rising numbers can mean the difference between a school keeping its doors open or closed. Immigrant businesses are helping keep many rural main streets from turning into tumbleweed junctions, yet, “It’s taboo to think about spending money” on helping those families integrate into society.
And they will integrate, she says. Recalling that public schools in some rural Minnesota communities taught classes only in German before the two world wars, and that it was common for second- and third-generation Scandinavian families to speak their ancestors’ mother tongues at home, Fennelly says Minnesotans ought to have some empathy for the state’s most recent immigrants.