Immigration in Minnesota grew more quickly than the national average over the last two decades. But the state is only now beginning to catch up with the opportunities and the challenges of having a diverse international population, according to a new study from the Minneapolis Foundation.
The new report, called "Minnesota's New Age of Immigrants," aims to provide accurate data on what's likely to be a volatile issue this election season.
Its research was done by the Wilder Foundation, and drew from a variety of sources to describe where Minnesota's immigrants come from, how they are integrating into the workforce and the services they consume.
Immigration grew quickly in Minnesota in the 1990s. The foreign-born population increased by 130 percent, compared to 57 percent nationally. That trend continued in the beginning of this decade. The state's immigrant population grew by one-third between 2000 and 2007, when nationally the foreign-born population rose 22 percent.
Despite those gains, the foreign-born population in Minnesota is 6.5 percent, exactly half the national average.
Minnesota's immigrants come from a wide variety of places. Nearly 40 percent come from Asia. Another 18 percent come from Africa. Just over one-quarter of the state's immigrants are from Latin America, half the national average.
Principal researcher Greg Owen notes that immigrants have been a source of young labor for Minnesota, a state with an aging workforce. Immigrant workers also have taken on a variety of roles in the state's economy.
"One of two cows in Minnesota are milked by Latino immigrants," Owen said. "This, I think, startles people. They think 'well, dairy farming in Minnesota, that's sort of native-born activity.' But in order to find all the workers necessary to have the milk production that we have in this state, Latino workers are deeply embedded in this work."
Though some might find it difficult to imagine a worker shortage given the current economy, long-term projections show Minnesota employers will be looking for more highly skilled technical workers as well as low-skilled workers -- two ends of the skills spectrum where immigrant jobs tend to cluster.
The report describes some of the strains immigration puts on the state, particularly in finding enough English as a Second Language teachers in rural parts of the state that have seen the biggest influx of foreign-born workers.
Owen also describes a funding issue for refugees and asylum-seekers, which puts outstate counties at a disadvantage.
"The first county that they land in, often Hennepin or Ramsey County, is the county that receives the benefit -- the federal benefits that follow a refugee resettlement," he said. "What happens often is that then those refugees move on to other counties outside the metro area, and those dollars do not follow. This represents a significant barrier for integrating refugees and asylees into the workforce, into the education system in small communities."
Minnesota's immigrants have three times the poverty rate of native-born families, though those who have been here longer are less likely to be poor than recent arrivals.
However, the report cites data showing immigrants don't use a disproportionate share of public health dollars. It notes that the only programs with higher rates of immigrants are those designed especially for them, such as the Emergency Medical Assistance program and the Refugee Medical Assistance Program.
The report cites the lack of credible numbers on undocumented workers, and the need for more research to see what's happening with immigrants during the economic recession, and how much immigrants compete with native-born workers for jobs.