Minnesota’s long tradition of welcoming people escaping violence or persecution in other lands has brought this state much-needed talent — some of it from elsewhere in the U.S.
Take Eric Schwartz, the popular and effective dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota from 2011 until 2017. Schwartz recently told an editorial writer that he was drawn to Minnesota in part because in his previous position as a U.S. assistant secretary of state, he found in this state a richer understanding of the benefits of refugee resettlement than he encountered elsewhere.
“What I heard in Minnesota from stakeholders, service providers, teachers, health workers, community workers is that [refugee resettlement] is a responsibility that we undertake willingly and eagerly,” Schwartz said. “Service providers in Minnesota told me we get more from being a community that is hospitable to refugees than refugees get from us.
“That was the spirit I found in Minnesota. I talked about it all the time when I got back to Washington. It’s a credit to the people of Minnesota. It also offers the prospect of Minnesota’s continuing vibrancy, its economic growth and development.”
On this topic, Schwartz bears heed. He is now president of Refugees International, a nonprofit advocacy organization that is straining to counter the hostility to immigration in general and refugees in particular that has been amped up in the Trump era. The issue has cropped up in the Minnesota governor’s race. Both of the two leading Republican candidates, Jeff Johnson and Tim Pawlenty, have called for an indefinite halt to refugee resettlement in the state, citing its cost to taxpayers.
Indeed, the resettlement costs borne by state taxpayers reached $180 million in 2015, up 15 percent from five years ago, a study found earlier this year. But that’s only about 2 percent of state social services spending — and it is balanced by the long-term economic gain that refugees and other immigrants produce. By one calculation, refugees and immigrants pay $1.2 billion in state and local taxes per year, and add 7.5 percent to the annual gross state product.
Schwartz noted that the biggest economic threat Minnesota faces in the next decade is a labor shortage and that immigration can be a key strategy for maintaining growth. That’s the recommendation of a 2017 University of Minnesota study, which notes that maintaining the then-current 0.5 percent rate of annual labor force growth in the next decade would require more than a fourfold increase in arrivals from outside the state.
Refugees are a good bet to fill that bill, an Urban Institute study suggests. It found that refugee men on average participate in the labor force at rates as high as or higher than native-born men and that after several years in the U.S., refugee women also participate in the labor force at native-born levels.
Candidates for high office would do well to make Minnesotans familiar with those data rather than decrying the short-term costs of refugee resettlement, Schwartz said. “Never has there been a time when we have been more in need of enlightened leaders to play a role in developing a narrative based on facts, not fear.”
Immigration can be credited with much of the American success story, and it’s an essential theme in Minnesota’s story. But popular support for immigration has always been fragile. This state’s candidates for high office should know what history teaches: Politicians’ willingness to speak up for immigration in general and refugees in particular has often been crucial in keeping America growing and Minnesota thriving.