Thinking about immigration and St. Patrick’s Day

Time to stir up a batch of Irish soda bread and hunt up a green shirt for St. Patrick’s Day. You don’t need an Irish ancestor to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, which is lucky for the tens of thousands of Bavarians celebrating in Munich, the marchers in Long Beach, California’s Irish-for-a-day parade, and all the Minnesotans eager for any excuse to get out and celebrate after a long winter.

My Irish ancestors, like my other great-grandparents from Germany and Luxembourg, came to Minnesota without documents. Most Minnesotans have undocumented ancestors, descending from immigrants who came before quotas were set in 1921, and before immigrants needed documents.

Immigrants make up about 7.3 percent of the state population today, nearly 400,000 Minnesotans, according to the Center for Immigration Policy. Some 46 percent of these immigrants are naturalized citizens. About 87,000 are undocumented immigrants, according to a new report from the Center for Migration Studies. That number has been declining, not growing, in recent years.

Today, as in the past, immigrants work hard and contribute to the state’s economy. The Center for Immigration Policy points out that “Latinos and Asians (both foreign-born and native-born) wield $13.8 billion in consumer purchasing power, and the businesses they own had sales and receipts of $4 billion and employed more than 22,000 people at last count.”

The contributions of all immigrants, documented and undocumented, enrich Minnesota, culturally and economically. The Minnesota History Center just opened an exhibit celebrating forty years of Hmong immigration to Minnesota, and a Pioneer Press series highlights the journey and contributions of Hmong Minnesotans.

A report from the Center for Migration Studies focuses on undocumented immigrants, with both national and state-by-state statistics. According to the report, just over half of Minnesota’s undocumented immigrants come from Mexico. The next-largest numbers come from India and Ecuador. That’s different from the national numbers, which have Mexico followed by El Salvador and Guatemala, with India in fourth place and Ecuador not even among the top 25.

Immigrants often seek the cities and states where others from their country have settled. That’s why Minnesota has large Hmong and Somali and Karen and Ecuadoran immigrant populations, as well as the generations-earlier settlements of large numbers of Swedes, Norwegians, Germans and others. The Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center tells about those earlier days:

“Migration chains were quickly established between many places in the Midwest and in Sweden, encouraging and sustaining further movement across the Atlantic. … Minnesota became the most Swedish of all states, with Swedish-Americans constituting more than 12 percent of Minnesota’s population in 1910. In some areas, such as Chisago or Isanti counties on the Minnesota countryside north and northwest of Minneapolis, Swedish-Americans made up close to 70 percent of the population.”

More than 60 percent of Minnesota’s undocumented immigrants arrived in the United States more than 10 years ago. Nearly one-third of Minnesota’s undocumented immigrants arrived in the United States more than five but less than ten years ago. Undocumented immigrants have become part of the state, working and raising families here over a long period of time.

Undocumented immigrants work hard, and not just in restaurants or on farms. In Minnesota, 17 percent of undocumented workers have managerial or professional jobs, according to the report from the Center for Migration Studies. Overall, undocumented immigrants participate in the workforce at a higher rate than the population as a whole.

Despite obstacles to higher education, 19 percent of Minnesota’s undocumented immigrants age 18 or older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, 20 percent have some college, and another 22 percent have a high school diploma or equivalent.

We need their contributions. Only immigration from other countries keeps Minnesota’s population growing. Immigrants, on average younger than native-born Minnesotans, keep our workforce strong despite the retirement of increasing numbers of baby boomers. The Minnesota State Demographic Center summed it up in a report issued in January:

“The residents of Minnesota today are not the same ones as yesterday, nor tomorrow. … Minnesota is entering a new demographic era, where migration’s relative influence on our total population will rise. According to our projections, by the early 2040s, if our state is to experience any population growth at all, it will necessarily be from migration. Over these same coming decades, the Baby Boomer generation will continue to exit the labor force, and overall labor force growth will slow nearly to a halt. Thus, our state will experience a heightened need for migration to grow at all, but especially to shore up its labor force needs.”

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