A dramatic shift in global migration patterns is unfolding this year on Minnesota’s border with Canada. Refugees—typically from African countries, motivated in part by fears they are not welcome in the United States—have been moving from and through Minnesota to seek asylum in Canada. While their ranks are still small overall, their numbers began spiking last winter as they walked north across the sparsely populated border near Emerson, Manitoba, often risking their lives in sub-zero temperatures.
Once they reach Canada, authorities intercept and screen them. If cleared, many end up in Winnipeg, the metropolis closest to the border, where they can begin applying for refugee status, with help from individual sponsors. The Winnipeg-based Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, a refugee resettlement agency, told TCB that it expects to handle at least 1,000 asylum claims this year—five times its caseload in 2016. Before the inauguration of Donald Trump, an average of 10 to 20 asylum seekers crossed the Manitoba border every month. Since then, that number has jumped nearly tenfold, says Greg Janzen, Emerson’s top elected official.
Janzen says many asylum seekers have overstayed their U.S. visas, while others have criminal records. Both groups fear imminent deportation under the newly instituted zero-tolerance policy. Initially, Janzen says, a majority were Somali, but increasingly they represent a diverse array of ethnicities and national origins. The situation is unprecedented in recent memory.
“I’ve been here for 27 years and I’ve never heard of refugees leaving Minnesota or the [U.S.] to go to Canada,” says Jane Graupman, executive director at the International Institute of Minnesota, one of five refugee resettlement agencies in the Twin Cities. “The tone from the White House is something I’ve never heard before.”
All of this is part of a larger economic picture that has caught the attention of Susan Brower, Minnesota’s state demographer. “I’m concerned,” says Brower, who worries that the rising anti-immigration sentiment will lead to a growing labor shortage in Minnesota.
Four years ago, the prospect that Congress would clean up the country’s muddled immigration system was plausible. A bipartisan “Gang of Eight” U.S. senators passed a comprehensive overhaul that provided a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but the House failed to act and anti-immigrant sentiment rose. Then Trump won, after a campaign that featured heavy demonization of illegal immigrants and their impact on the economy and jobs. Talk of reviving the Gang of Eight effort has gone nowhere this year.
The ongoing failure of both Republicans and Democrats to fix the system frustrates Bill Blazar, a longtime executive at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. About a decade ago, the chamber, concerned about looming worker shortages, formed the Minnesota Business Immigration Coalition. The alliance, which works with business lobbies, unions, attorneys, religious groups, social service agencies and professional groups—43 organizations in all—continues to press for an overhaul of the immigration system.
Blazar points to a stream of reports showing that newcomers, who often take big risks coming to the U.S., are generally more likely to start companies than native-born Americans are. (Minnesota is a notable exception to this trend.) But he says the number of Minnesota businesses founded and/or led by immigrants has grown since the 1990s.
Blazar sympathizes with the plight of undocumented immigrants in today’s acrimonious climate. He describes them as “generally, really good people who came here for good reasons and work hard. Their lives have now become uncertain to the point of being inhumane.”
Brower and Blazar’s concerns are based on data that underscore the importance of workforce growth to the state’s economy. In January, a University of Minnesota analysis predicted the state will fall to zero growth after 2020. This forecast assumes that robust numbers of newly arriving immigrants will continue, but doubts are growing about that assumption. The report also showed that Minnesota has become more dependent on immigrants for workforce growth in recent years.
“Immigration has been fueling our growth,” says Brower. “We would expect to see increases in immigration to Minnesota, overall, under the projections we have out right now.” But she notes pointedly that if the flow of foreign-born workers tails off, “we’d see no growth, or contraction” in the workforce. Thus, she concludes, the new hard line doesn’t square with the needs of employers or the prospects for the state’s economy.
Generally, foreign-born residents fall into three major categories: fully authorized, with either citizenship or permanent legal status (by far the largest category); undocumented, meaning they aren’t here legally; and refugees, forced to find a new homeland due to war or persecution for religious or political views. Persons designated as refugees can follow a process that eventually leads to citizenship. There are also various classes of legal temporary workers.
Typically, undocumented immigrants have come here because they couldn’t support their families in their native country or sought to reunify with families in the U.S. Often, they found no practical way to navigate the system to achieve legal status. Nationally, up to 45 percent of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. overstayed their visas. Though large numbers of the undocumented population were deported under the Bush and Obama administrations, those administrations often chose to defer or avoid deportation. They allowed millions to stay for humanitarian reasons or because they pay taxes, start businesses or otherwise contribute to the economy and diversity of the country. The Pew Research Center estimates that Minnesota has 80,000 undocumented workers—2.7 percent of the workforce.
Steve Carlson, a former deputy commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Commerce, warns that growing anti-immigrant sentiment could seriously damage the national economy. He points to Congressional Budget Office forecasts that counted on a flow of 1 million immigrants annually for the CBO’s 10-year outlook. Without them, the country’s economy would lose almost a fourth of its growth over this stretch.
Though refugees do not face the threat of enforcement action due to their status, anti-immigrant sentiment is affecting Minnesota’s status as a magnet for refugees.
Minnesota’s refugee flow has for years ranked at or near the top for any state relative to its population. In the late 1970s, many churches and nonprofit agencies, working with federal and state governments, began settling refugees from war-ravaged Southeast Asia. This open-door stance paved the way for the immigration that has changed the face of the state over the last generation. Since 1979, roughly 110,000 refugees have come directly to Minnesota from other countries. Many additional thousands resettled here from other states. With the change in government policy, these numbers have declined sharply. In March and April, arrivals fell to 164 from 559 a year earlier. Somalia accounted for roughly two-thirds of the decline (see refugee statistics).
Fears have risen among a broad spectrum of immigrant communities this year as the White House has handed off more enforcement authority to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center in St. Paul, cites Trump orders during his first week in office for this growing unease. “There’s just a very unsettled atmosphere that has arisen, partially because of the rhetoric in the [presidential] campaign,” Keller says, “and, out of the gate, three executive orders.”
The St. Paul center is Minnesota’s largest legal aid society for immigrants. Keller says Trump’s proposed travel ban and other moves have had a ripple effect “at levels quite shocking to me.” When the president announced his first travel ban (which was subsequently struck down in the courts), Keller says his center got many calls from rattled immigrants in the country legally. “Is it safe to travel?” they asked.
At the International Institute, Jane Graupman had been expecting to resettle more than 575 refugees during fiscal 2017. But as of late May, the agency was expecting to help only 350 for the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Arrive Ministries, another Minnesota resettlement agency, expects to handle 250 new refugee arrivals this year, down from 400 in FY 2016. Minnesota officials say they can’t forecast arrivals for the rest of the year because of the uncertainties raised by Trump’s executive orders. Bob Oehrig, executive director at Arrive, notes a bright side: The number of volunteer church teams working with his agency to help refugees has tripled in recent months.
But resettlement agencies, faced with a shrinking workload and reduced federal funding, have been trimming paid staff. Since January, the International Institute has lost three positions and more than $200,000 in federal funding.
The prevailing message from economists is that refugees take jobs that American-born jobseekers won’t. Over the past two decades, the International Institute has placed more than 2,000 refugees as nursing assistants and placed them in long-term care facilities. American-born workers shun such work, says Graupman. Refugees are not “taking these jobs from other people. They’re becoming taxpayers. They see this as an opportunity.”
There are exceptions to that truism. This spring, the Mankato Building and Construction Trades Council criticized the Meadowland Farm Co-op in Walnut Grove for using a contractor, Genuine Builders, that employs foreign guest workers on projects that the council says are typically done by local workers.
Harvard economist George Borjas is a notable exception to the consensus. He argued recently in The New York Times that businesses are exploiting lower-educated immigrant workers and depressing the wages of low-skilled American workers. But even Borjas, himself a refugee from Cuba, admits the vast majority of undocumented immigrants lead peaceful lives and establish deep roots in their communities. “Their sudden deportation would not represent the compassionate America that many of us envision,” he wrote in a February Times op-ed. “Rather than fight over a politically impossible amnesty, we could accelerate the granting of family-preference visas to that population.”
Heightened fears of imminent deportation have cast a dark cloud over the lives of many undocumented immigrants. John Keller recounts a chilling incident after a workshop for immigrants convened post-election. Two brothers, about 6 and 8 years old, came to him to ask if they would be deported. No, Keller replied. Then they dragged their parents, undocumented, over to him for the next question: Would their mom and dad be deported? “I tried to reassure them that their parents would be fine,” Keller says, “but the reality is that they are at greater risk.”
The big picture, Keller implies, is this: As the perception sinks in that America is an unwelcoming land, it will scare away not just immigrants but foreign students, tourists and entrepreneurs as well. That damage remains incalculable.
Minnesota’s net migration, international and domestic, 1991-2014
Since 2002, domestic migration to Minnesota has been negative. Population projections and historical trends indicate that future population growth will be dependent on international immigration.
Dave Beal, longtime business columnist and editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, writes about business and the economy.