Minnesota is poised to receive more refugees in 2016 than in any year for almost a decade, a ripple effect of the historic migration wave sweeping across the Middle East and Europe.
After dropping precipitously in the late 2000s, the number of refugees arriving in Minnesota has begun to rebound, with about 2,340 this past fiscal year. Now, as the federal government aims to admit 15,000 more refugees next year over the 70,000 it typically accepts, Minnesota is gearing up for larger numbers as well.
But while the national rise stems from a hotly debated Obama administration commitment to aid Syrian refugees, the mix of nationalities in Minnesota is expected to stay unchanged.
“The reality is that it is unlikely many Syrian refugees will come to Minnesota, since refugees most often resettle where there is an established community,” said Bob Oehrig, executive director of Arrive Ministries, a resettlement agency that contracts with the federal government to help arriving refugees.
All local agencies anticipate increases this fiscal year. Some have agreed to boost their refugee arrival numbers by as much as 20 percent, but others say they plan to keep growth to a minimum amid concerns about a dwindling supply of affordable housing in the Twin Cities.
‘It’s a miracle’
Minnesota received about 60 more refugees during the fiscal year that wrapped up in September, compared with the previous year, according to numbers the state recently finalized. Roughly three-quarters of the newcomers settled in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
Of the 2,338 total, almost 45 percent hailed from Somalia, and about 40 percent were Karen refugees from Myanmar, also known as Burma. Iraqis, Ethiopians and Bhutanese made up significantly smaller contingents. Overall, 26 countries were represented.
Kaludji Ruteye was one of five Congolese refugees. He fled a brutal civil conflict in his sprawling homeland in 2006. He registered as a refugee in Zimbabwe and eventually settled in a crowded camp near a nature preserve, where he spent the last four years. His wife and 2-year-old daughter remain there for now. He carpools from his apartment in St. Paul to his job packaging foods in Chanhassen.
“Right now, I am living my dream,” Ruteye said, although he misses his wife and daughter. “It’s a miracle.”
In recent years, more refugees like Ruteye, who have no relatives in Minnesota, have made their way to the state. In 2008, overall arrivals plummeted, particularly from Africa, after DNA tests showed only about 20 percent of applicants in a popular refugee family settlement program were actually related to stateside sponsors. The U.S. government suspended the program, which accounted for the bulk of new arrivals in Minnesota at the time.
In the following years, Karen refugee arrivals came to dwarf the Somali numbers. Since the family resettlement program resumed in 2012, state totals across nationalities have inched up each year, though they remain a fraction of the roughly 6,300 refugees a year the state resettled a decade ago. Last year, Somalis again became the most numerous group of refugees to enter Minnesota. Meanwhile, arrivals from Laos and Liberia have tapered off.
Minnesota remains near the top among states for refugee resettlement, measured as a share of state population. It is also the top destination for refugees who move from the state where they were originally resettled.
Local agencies say their approved arrival numbers for this fiscal year are up across the board. Agencies can generally exceed those numbers by up to 10 percent, and in light of the national increase, some said they are waiting to hear if they might be called upon to boost their arrival numbers further.
The International Institute of Minnesota, which resettled Ruteye, did that last fiscal year, says Jane Graupman, the executive director: “We took more than we expected, and other agencies did, too.”
The U.S. State Department, which handles refugee placements, said it cannot share projections for refugee arrivals by state.
Minnesota, which resettled nine Syrians this year, hasn’t heard that more will arrive from that war-torn country. Agencies expect the mix of nationalities will remain mostly unchanged in coming years, with a gradual decrease in arrivals from Myanmar, which is now considered stable enough to cease new refugee registrations.
For some agency officials, it makes sense to continue focusing on nationalities like Somalis, with an already large presence in Minnesota.
“If you don’t resettle them here, many of them make their way here within weeks of getting resettled in another state,” Graupman said. “All of that uprooting is not good for anyone.”
The national increase, to be followed by another 15,000 jump in 2017, remains the focus of ongoing controversy. Citing security concerns, a majority of governors nationally have vowed to block Syrian arrivals in their states.
In Minnesota, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek wrote Gov. Mark Dayton in November asking that local law enforcement agencies receive more advance information about incoming refugees, including their names. House Speaker Kurt Daudt also wrote Dayton, urging him not to accept Syrian refugees until greater reassurance from the federal government that they are thoroughly vetted.
Daudt, R-Crown, said that his concerns about Syrian resettlements persist, but that with respect to other nationalities, the state should continue in its “rich tradition of welcoming immigrants from across the globe.”
Refugee advocates, on the other hand, have said the Obama administration’s increase falls short. At the University of Minnesota, Ryan Allen, an expert on immigrant and refugee policy, said he would like to see the state pursue a larger role in Syrian resettlements: “Minnesota is well-positioned to be of help.”
Some resettlement agencies say a shortage of affordable rental housing in the Twin Cities is a growing concern. Laura Svoboda, assistant director of refugee services at the Minnesota Council of Churches, said the agency doesn’t plan to take on a marked increase in the refugees because of that challenge.
Agency officials said the refugee debate has triggered critical phone calls and social media postings, as well as an outpouring of support. The International Institute filled a meeting room with donated supplies, including a diaper shipment from Nebraska and winter coats delivered by an Iowa family. Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota now has a waiting list for prospective volunteers.
Said Jacqueline Nelson, the agency’s senior communications manager, “People have offered to open their homes, donate quilts and become mentors.”