Minnesota is a state of immigrants. Our first residents, American Indians, arrived from elsewhere. Names of localities, waterways and landmarks around the state reflect varied waves of immigrants during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Today, immigrants comprise approximately 13 percent of Minnesota’s residents, about half the percentage recorded in early state census figures of 1870. Between 1870 and 1920, the steady flow of immigration kept that percentage within the range of 14 percent to 26 percent.

The makeup of immigration has changed over time. In the late 1800s, the largest share of our foreign-born population came from Europe; in the 2010s, the largest share comes from Asia, followed by Latin America, Africa and then Europe. We differ in this from the rest of the U.S., with proportionately more Asian and African immigrants and fewer from Latin America

Of the roughly 400,000 foreign-born people living in Minnesota, three-quarters live in the seven-county metro area. Examination of our larger cities reveals, to the surprise of many, that Minneapolis does not top the list as having the greatest proportion of residents who identify another country as their birthplace. Brooklyn Center ranks first, with one in four residents born outside of the U.S. Next in line, at about one in five, are: Brooklyn Park, Richfield and St. Paul. (See Minnesota Compass: www.mncompass.org)

In about half of Minnesota’s 87 counties, fewer than one in 50 residents is an immigrant. Counties with a foreign-born population of 5 percent or more all lie between the Twin Cities and the Iowa border, with one striking exception: Koochiching County, at the Canadian border, with exactly 5 percent of its population foreign-born. Certain immigrant groups are more likely to reside in the Twin Cities metro area than in Greater Minnesota. For example, only 5 percent of Hmong immigrants live outstate, compared with 14 percent of Somalis, 30 percent of Mexicans and 34 percent of Koreans

Worldwide, whether immigrants relocate solely to improve their own lives or as refugees fleeing to save their lives, economic opportunities and family connections constitute the magnets that draw people to select their new places to live. So it is in Minnesota, where new arrivals often have selected their destination on the advice of kin, and where 70 percent of adult immigrants participate in the workforce — a number similar to the 76 percent workforce participation of residents born in the U.S

Nobles County, one of the few counties to buck the decline in manufacturing jobs, has seen its immigrant population double since 2000. It ranks at the top among counties for the proportion of its residents born outside of the U.S

Does the arrival of immigrants bring challenges? Research demonstrates yes. In education, for example, despite the fact that almost 80 percent of foreign-born people speak English relatively well, communication with students and parents does become complex: 238 languages are spoken in the homes of Minnesota students. Students with limited English need help. As another challenge, community relations often become strained as old and new residents negotiate customs and seek ways to coexist. Leaders need to manage this change, encouraging understanding and interaction between the older and newer residents in their communities

Does the arrival of immigrants bring opportunities? Research also demonstrates yes. Immigrants stimulate economies as entrepreneurs, workers and consumers. In this first half of the 21st century, according to the Minnesota state demographer, “greater numbers of migrants, both domestic and international, will be necessary to meet our state’s workforce needs and to buttress economic activity.” Immigrants can and will contribute to the maintenance or growth of the total population in Minnesota (which has not declined because of the increase in numbers of people of color), and contribute to the numbers in our workforce

As with many Minnesotans, my family was shaped by immigration. Two of my grandparents grew up on an island in the Adriatic Sea, never attended school and immigrated to New York City. My paternal grandmother never learned to read or write. My other grandparents, children of immigrants residing in Philadelphia, attained high school diplomas

Within two generations, my grandparents’ progeny earned bachelor’s, master’s, and law degrees, and even one Ph.D. — contributing to their communities through business, government, education, nonprofit organizations and the military. That has been and continues to be the story of immigrants, developing themselves and strengthening the social and economic fabrics of which they become components

Descendants of immigrants typically do exceed the first generation in education, homeownership and wealth. They integrate with their host communities. Moving forward, communities with immigrant residents should strive to incorporate newcomers’ voices into the development of policies and plans. Mayors and city councils who promote values of inclusion will nourish economic and social vitality, especially noticeable in previously declining or struggling neighborhoods

Efforts to foster continued success for today’s immigrants — private and public efforts alike, collective and individual — will pay rich dividends and honor our own immigrant pasts.


Paul Mattessich is executive director of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul.