If we're to keep thriving, Minnesota needs immigrants - especially in Greater Minnesota

We need workers, and we're not having enough babies. Immigration can help.

March 24, 2020

By Nick Stumo-Langer

This article was originally published on January 27, 2020 in the Minnesota Reformer. The original piece can be found here.

The state's growth is expected to be uneven, with large swaths of the state losing population.

Minnesotans are dying.

Well, everyone everywhere is dying. The issue in Minnesota is that the births of new Minnesotans will soon be outpaced by deaths, which becomes problematic if you like crops harvested, medical innovations cutting edge, and state coffers full of tax revenues.

This trend is particularly true in wide swaths of Greater Minnesota. Other than the Twin Cities and a few other places like Rochester, many cities and townships face a daunting reality of rapidly aging populations — unless something is done. The answer: Encouraging more migrants to settle across the entire state.

Three elements affect the size of the potential labor force: births, deaths and migration. As noted by the Minnesota State Demographer: “The rate of births and the rate of deaths in a population change very slowly and are not especially sensitive to changes in government policy or economic conditions.” That leaves migration — the category highly dependent upon political intervention — to fill the gap.

As of 2018, Minnesota had a foreign-born population of about 485,000, or 8.6% of our total population. That’s an increase of nearly 225,000 since the year 2000, when just 5.3% of the population was foreign born. This spike is due mainly to the acceptance of refugees from violent conflicts across East Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet countries.

Immigrants aren’t just living in Minnesota, they’re working. According to the Minnesota Budget Project, 71% of the immigrant population are a part of the labor force, with rates comparable to the native-born population across each of the state’s eight Congressional districts. As Minnesotans grow older, more will cycle out of the working-age population. Without immigration, the population that is working will dwindle.

Our immigrants are far more likely to be working age than native born. As of 2017, just 60% of the native born population were working age — meaning aged 18-64 — whereas nearly 80 percent of immigrants are working age. This infusion of workers can bolster the economy across the state by helping fill jobs for which employers are currently struggling to find talent.

During the decade after 2014, the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development projected that more than 130,000 jobs would become available for workers in the top five occupations that do not require a high school degree, including retail sales, food preparation and service, personal care aides, cashiers and wait staff. These job categories match the projected skill level of a significant portion of Minnesota’s immigrant population. Our newly arrived Minnesotans are helping fill a need — just ask any business owner or manager. They’ll tell you.

We see the downstream effects of immigrant employment, including majority-minority school districts and housing shortages. Pelican Rapids, Long Prairie and Worthington — all cities with large meatpacking plants — are full of immigrants filling jobs that otherwise would stay vacant due to the existing tight labor market. Minnesota companies are benefiting from immigration, even when education and income outcomes for immigrants — especially immigrants of color — demonstrate troubling disparities.

All signs point to immigration being good for Minnesota’s economy, so what is the state doing about it?

For the most part, the only thing we hear out of the immigration debate at both the state and federal level is rhetoric.

Congress could, however, get something done, whereas state leaders are relegated to working on policy solutions only at the margin.

One helpful step that state and local leaders can take: Broadcast our status as a welcoming state. in late 2017, a city council member in St. Cloud — home to a sizable Somali-Minnesotan population of around 1,400 — proposed a moratorium on refugee resettlement. Supporters and detractors stormed the chambers on the night in question. The proposal was not voted on, however, and a counter-resolution explicitly welcoming refugees passed instead.

At the time Minnesota Public Radio news polled Minnesotan’s attitudes regarding immigration and refugee resettlement. For those in Greater Minnesota, just 41 percent of Republicans said that they agreed with the state’s welcoming posture toward immigrants. The paradox being, of course, that Greater Minnesota would benefit most from increased immigration because employers are having such a hard time finding workers.

Greater Minnesota Republicans are skeptical of refugee resettlement and immigration, even as many of their communities lose population.

For its long-term economic health, the state should codify its openness to immigrants. Leaders should demand federal action to settle greater numbers of refugees here. Minnesotans should make clear the we stand to benefit from the presence of new Minnesotans in our communities — and welcome them.

With the population of Minnesotans aging — especially in Greater Minnesota — we need immigrants to keep Minnesota thriving.

Nick Stumo-Langer is a Master of Public Policy student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. You can contact him at stum2056@umn.edu with any comments or questions.