OPINION | Immigration reform’s Minnesota impact


Immigrants are important to Minnesota. Rural or urban, north or south, first ring suburbs or newest exurb, immigrants are an essential part of Minnesota’s economic and cultural fabric. A recent study, Economic Benefits of Immigration Reform in Minnesota, from the Center for American Progress and the American Federation of State County and Municipal workers examines the economic impact of the national immigration reform act in Minnesota. $4.8 billion is nothing to sneeze at.

Minnesota is a state of immigrants. Just after statehood in 1858, Germans and Irish constituted the first immigrant wave. Thirty years later, Scandinavians poured into Minnesota. During the early 20th century, immigration from southern and eastern Europe boomed. As the First World War started, roughly 70% of Minnesotans were foreign born or had at least one foreign-born parent. That percentage declined as new immigrants settled, producing second and third generation Minnesotans.

In 1921, easy immigration access ended with the federal Emergency Quota Act. An immigration quota system was established, limiting new immigrants to 3% of the number of people originating from the same country, determined by the 1910 census. Subsequent legislation further narrowed immigration opportunities, effectively closing the door on people from non-Northern European countries. Once immediate cheap labor needs were met, first and second generation Americans were quick to restrict the access that allowed their families into the US.

Despite the heavy-handed immigration reforms of the 1920s, immigration to the US never halted. It only slowed. Economic growth and expansion required more workers than citizen birth rate could accommodate. Today, scholars distinguish between new immigrants’ political and economic motivations. Political persecution forces some people to flee their homelands. Civil war creates widespread population movement and economic disruption as whole groups of people flee fighting. Those people, classified as refugees, fall under the political immigrant classification.

Economic migrants seek greater income earning opportunities than their home countries afford. Mexican and Central American migration to the United States are examples of immigrants behaving as earlier generations of Northern European immigrants behaved, looking to escape homeland poverty. Rising American prosperity seemed to give proof to the promise that hard work and honest labor was rewarded.

Despite convenient, popular political objections, the American marketplace clearly welcomes illegal, economic immigrants. Conservative policy advocates may decry illegal immigration’s tolerance as examples of a declining respect for rule-of-law, but those same activists happily profit from illegal migrant labor.

As the Immigration Benefits report reveals, Minnesota gains from creating a legal citizenship path for undocumented workers. Job creation is real, but modest, a projected 691 jobs annually for 10 years, largely because undocumented workers are already working and contributing to Minnesota’s economy. Worker contributions to Social Security over a generation will exceed draw by over 2-1, creating a net growth of $606.4 billion.

Most importantly, immigration reform grows Minnesota’s economy. If a comprehensive immigration bill passes this year, Minnesota could expect a $4.8 billion cumulative increase in gross state product over the next ten years. That constitutes a projected $2.7 billion increase in the earnings of all Minnesota residents. Immigrants alone will generate an additional $2.3 billion in earnings growth while paying $219 million in state and local taxes. Blocking immigration reform and keeping the present system in place leaves an extraordinary amount of money on the table.

Think of immigration as a bow tie. In fashion terms, a bow tie is a knot applied to a short length of decorative fabric, worn symmetrically around the throat and under a shirt collar. The bow knot easily secures the tie while simultaneously allowing for easy release.

Men’s and women’s bow ties rise and fall in fashion popularity as successive generations embrace or reject it. But, the bow tie never really goes away as an accessory. It’s been a mainstreamed, wildly popular necktie and it’s been deeply marginalized, the iconoclast’s neckwear. The same holds for immigration. It grows and contracts in popularity, yet never disappears. Bow ties, like immigration, are elemental.

Growth—economic, community, demographic—is, as a 2012 Minnesota 2020 report found, inseparable from immigration. New arrivals nourish and affirm the American dream but only if immigrants are allowed to realize the path to citizenship. Immigration reform immediately benefits Minnesota. Bow ties are making a comeback. It’s past time for immigration reform to keep up.