The Minnesota Chamber Foundation is out with a much-needed report on the many contributions of immigrants, detailing the critical role they play both in this state's present and its future.
Immigrants have helped offset declining birthrates in Minnesota and have provided critical work in agriculture, health care, food manufacturing and elsewhere, the report notes. They play an outsized role in the labor force, since more of them tend to be in their prime work years.
The demographic shift in Minnesota's immigrant population over the last 30 years has been dramatic, with a 300% rise. In 1990, immigrants made up 2.6% of the state's population. That figure is now 8.5%. In the metro area, it's higher: 3.8% in 1990, compared to 10.5% today. The foundation argues, convincingly, that the increase has been a net benefit to the state.
According to census data, more than 80% of Minnesota's immigrant population are of working age, compared to only 60% of the state's native-born population. Collectively, the report found, immigrant purchasing power amounts to more than $12 billion a year in Minnesota — double what it was just seven years ago. Minnesota immigrants in 2019 paid $4.5 billion in taxes, including $2 billion in state and local taxes. They also have a higher rate of workforce participation than native-born residents.
The report was based on pre-pandemic data. It is impossible to fully determine the long-range impact of the pandemic on the state's economy, but the report identified two key barriers to future growth: tight labor markets and a rising scarcity of workers.
Bill Blazar, retired from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, helped edit the report and has been a tireless advocate of immigration reform. "I scratch my head and wonder why this is such a challenging issue," Blazar told an editorial writer. "I'm just a former chamber guy who looks at the economic equation, and having a functional, modern immigration system really is a no-brainer."
Even given the pandemic, he said, "Minnesota's demographics make a compelling argument for an up-to-date immigration system in tune with the economy. We need people. They're not moving here from North Dakota and Iowa anymore. They're mostly coming from outside the U.S."
He points to operations such as Andersen Windows and Marvin Windows, both looking to add workers. Andersen, which hopes to hire 1,000 people, is offering some benefits specifically designed to appeal to immigrants. In addition to higher wages, health benefits and on-the-job training, it's offering English language classes, foot-washing stations and prayer rooms designed to appeal to Muslims, along with floating holidays. "They get it," Blazar said. "They understand diversity and recognize the quality of these workers. They know Minnesota's economy can't grow without them."
Now, he said, immigrants need a government that recognizes their value. Exasperated at the long road to comprehensive immigration reform, Blazar said he now sees the piecemeal approach as best. Two important provisions just passed the U.S. House with bipartisan support, he pointed out — a path to citizenship for those brought to the U.S. as children and an agricultural workforce provision that would give temporary legal status to some unauthorized immigrant farmworkers, with a chance at permanent status.
The best way to overcome objections, he said, is with facts: that immigrants are far from a drag on this state and nation's economy. They are a net gain, with measurable contributions.