Immigrants become key to state growth and prosperity

Published 9:21 am Friday, December 7, 2012

By David Peterson

Minneapolis Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — Each morning at sunrise, Edinah passes through Edina on her way to work.

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The Burnsville resident couldn’t have imagined back in Kenya that a town that almost shares her name would become a daily sight — or that her buddy Doris, whom she knew back in Africa, would be working next door. But it’s an apt illustration of a state undergoing a subtle but profound shift in its relationship with its growing immigrant population.

With more native-born residents leaving the state, Minnesota’s growth and prosperity depend increasingly upon its unusually strong flow of foreigners, according to a series of new analyses and data, the most recent of which arrived on Thursday.

As North Dakota and South Dakota experience jumps in population, Minnesota’s once enviable position as a population magnet among Frost Belt states is fading. But in immigration, it towers over the rest of the Upper Midwest, with almost as many foreigners arriving as all the neighboring states combined.

Among facts to emerge this week:

—In the first part of this decade, the state lost an average of 4,037 people each year to migration, but gained an average of 5,940 international migrants each year.

—Sixty-five of Minnesota’s 87 counties are losing residents to other places, including such once robust but now aging population growth centers as Dakota and Anoka counties. Almost all of the counties are getting some new blood through immigration, though that is fully offsetting losses in only three of those counties.

—In the Twin Cities, immigrants are flowing to many more places. Minneapolis is flat-lining, and being equaled or surpassed by more and more suburbs — including, for the first time, big middle- and upper-income suburbs in the second and third rings such as Eden Prairie and Shakopee.

Minneapolis went from having the highest concentration of immigrants of any city of any size in the metro area in 2000, at about 15 percent, to being trailed by several in this week’s data, which covers a five-year period ending in 2011: Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Columbia Heights, St. Paul, Hopkins, Eden Prairie and Shakopee. Eden Prairie jumped from 9 percent immigrant to 16 percent, Shakopee from 5 to 16 percent, while Minneapolis edged from 14.5 to 15.7 percent.

Edinah Ogembo, five months pregnant in Burnsville, and Doris Momanyi, with a daughter in Hopkins, are part of a massive substitution in suburban school systems. Tens of thousands of native-born suburban Minnesotans have aged out of the K-12 system and immigrant children have taken their place, the state’s latest figures show.

A new Metropolitan Council analysis of migration trends says we are in the midst of a 50-year period — from 1990 to 2040 — in which the seven-county metro area will lose to other parts of the state and nation about 360,000 people through retirement, departures for college and other factors.

During those same years, they reckon, we’ll gain almost 750,000 immigrants.

What demographers call “natural” population growth — more births than deaths — is expected to add more than 1 million people in that period. But even that is increasingly linked to immigration. Minnesota Compass, a data-gathering effort funded by philanthropists, says that already nearly one in five of the state’s preschoolers is an immigrant’s child.

Some immigration advocates fear that too much will be made of such numbers in an era of anti-immigrant backlash. Said Katherine Fennelly, a University of Minnesota specialist on the topic:

“The general public consistently overestimates the size of immigrant populations. We forget that many who appear to be Latin American or Asian are U.S. citizens, born right here. Yet if they dress differently, or don’t look Scandinavian, they get tagged as immigrants.”

Still, she said, immigrants are serving a key role. “We often hear about our aging population, but we don’t tie that to immigration. There is no other source of new, young workers.”

“We need young people to earn money and support the rest of us,” she said.

Why do immigrants gravitate to snowy Minnesota, when so many of them start off in tropical climates? In large part, it’s because a critical mass of previous arrivals from other continents, established early on through church sponsorships and other factors, builds on itself, interviews with immigrants suggest.

Ogembo and Momanyi both ended up here within the past five years because siblings were here. Ogembo started in Houston with one of her 11 siblings, a brother. When he returned to Africa, she headed north to be with others. Momanyi started off here, though she has a sister in California.

Momanyi has been here less than a year. Her hesitant English and her job as an aide at Legacy Care Home, an assisted living home for seniors in Minnetonka, belie the reality that she has a bachelor’s degree and worked in a professional positin in Kenya.

Minnesota Compass calculates, in fact, that foreign-born adults in Minnesota are slightly more likely than Minnesotans as a whole to have earned four-year college degrees: 33 percent in 2010, vs. 32 percent for the general population.

Partly because so many are refugees, however, they are also more likely to lack high school degrees or GEDs: 25 percent, compared with 7 percent of native-born adults.

Tellingly, some of the highest immigrant concentrations, according to new U.S. census data out Thursday, are in both trailer-park communities with working-class residents and in the suburb of Falcon Heights, where 66 percent of residents report having college degrees.

Some friction

As immigrants make their way into upper-income suburbs, tensions do sometimes rise. Melissa Krull, who departed as superintendant in Eden Prairie after a tense battle over school boundaries, showed a slide recently of angry protesters holding anti-Krull signs during a conference of suburban officials on affordable housing. She suggested that the officials need to “look at the effects of open enrollment.”

She added: “It can serve us well, but it is also used as a vehicle to run as fast as people can from integrated schools. I absolutely have seen it myself. … White families left Eden Prairie and families of color stayed, and there goes your [integration] plan. Families were leaving for other white communities.”

Conversely, neighboring Shakopee last fall elected a youthful mayor who promised to break down walls of separation between immigrants and longer-time residents, and has launched a series of events designed to do that. Dave Menden, the gravel-voiced former county sheriff who lives in town, emerged from one of those sessions impressed.

“We need to get them to feel like they’re a part of us and have a say-so,” he told his fellow Scott County commissioners not long ago. “You talk to them about their culture and they tell you, ‘Hey — we’re a lot like you.’”