The home countries of the crowd at the International Institute of Minnesota spanned Canada, Ukraine, Somalia, El Salvador and beyond.
The group that gathered last week to be sworn in as American citizens migrated here amid different global forces than those that displaced Europeans who came after World War I and were aided by the institute, founded in 1919. But much of the new Americans’ motivations remained timeless.
“I think when you look back at history, it reminds you that really it’s no different than it ever has been — people that are coming are from different places than they were 100 years ago, but they still have that same appreciation for being in this country,” said Jane Graupman, the institute’s executive director. “And there’s still the hunger for opportunity and the foresight to be thinking forward for their children.”
The institute in St. Paul is celebrating its centennial at a time when the future of immigration is being debated more strongly than ever and the number of displaced people worldwide reaches a record level.
The organization helps immigrants and refugees build new homes in the U.S., offering a path to success through English classes, job training and other supports. Its trajectory as one of the state’s five agencies that resettle refugees offers a look at how the waves of displaced people in Minnesota have changed in the past century. Meanwhile, such institutions face new pressures because of the Trump administration’s overhaul of the refugee program as federal officials voice concern that the system is overburdened.
Around the country, some agencies have closed offices and laid off staff as Trump lowers refugee admissions to their lowest point in history. An executive order requiring local consent for refugee resettlement recently drew a legal challenge from several other volunteer agencies — including Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, whose partner, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, has been active in the state’s refugee resettlement efforts.
Counties across the state are deciding now whether to accept new refugees, and just last week, Gov. Tim Walz weighed in with a letter to the Trump administration, saying, “The inn is not full in Minnesota.”
The International Institute of Minnesota opened in a former saloon in St. Paul as part of the YWCA to serve foreign-born newcomers, largely Eastern Europeans, arriving after World War I. It worked to teach immigrants English, connect them to jobs and foster acceptance between cultures. By the 1930s, the institute was advocating for Mexicans who arrived to work in the sugar beet industry and faced discrimination.
As Japanese-Americans faced restrictions in the wake of the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor — 51 lived in Minnesota at the time — the organization worked to help those who were placed under house arrest. When many people of Japanese descent were incarcerated in California camps, the institute started the St. Paul Resettlement Committee to help those who were citizens leave the camps — something only allowed if they could find housing and sponsors away from the West Coast war zone.
Several Japanese-Americans moved to St. Paul and worked to build community support for relocating people. Eventually more than 150 Japanese-Americans lived in the St. Paul Resettlement Hostel operated by the committee.
After World War II ended, the institute reported that 1,320 people sought assistance in 1945.
“The problems brought to the International Institute reflected the problems of a troubled world,” said an article in the Ramsey County History Magazine drawing from the institute’s annual report that year. “Requests for information about bringing wives and fiancées left abroad from ex-servicemen increased. Families living in St. Paul with relatives living in war-torn countries turned to us for assistance in locating these relatives.”
More waves of immigrants from Europe followed after the U.S. Displaced Persons Act authorized the resettlement of 200,000 people from the badly battered continent.
Then the 1970s brought a wave of Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia, where they had assisted U.S. troops in overthrowing the Communist regime in Laos. The agency says that it has resettled nearly 25,000 refugees since 1974.
Since the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980, Somalis and other African refugee groups have arrived in Minnesota escaping war, persecution and famine. Karen refugees from Burma (now Myanmar) have recently become the state’s largest group of new arrivals. But the national ceiling on refugee admissions has fallen from 110,000 in President Barack Obama’s last year in office to 18,000 this year.
The institute held several events for its centennial celebration, including the naturalization ceremony. Becoming an American does not mean renouncing your love for the land where you were born or forgetting your native language and the songs and dances you learned as a child, federal Judge Robert Kressel told the crowd being sworn in. “As a U.S. citizen, you are free to follow your own path wherever it takes you,” he said.
Afterward, Kressel reminded them to register to vote.
The drop in arrivals has left voluntary resettlement agencies with less funding, since they get paid by the federal government per refugee, and some, including the International Institute of Minnesota, have laid off staff.
The institute has had to reach out to foundations and individual donors to close the gap.
“If you get 100 refugees in a year or 200 refugees in a year, it makes a difference in the level of staffing you can have and the amount of funding you’re getting for the program,” Graupman said.
Corleen Smith said that in the 20 years she’s handled immigration services for the institute, immigration has become more complex for clients, and interest in obtaining citizenship has increased. But the institute is concerned about a new proposal to hike citizenship application fees from $640 to $1,170; the federal government has said that existing fees do not cover the full cost of the process.
“It’s obviously going to limit the number of people that can apply — it’s already a large fee for many of our clients to pay,” Smith said.
Decades ago, according to Graupman, people arrived after staying in refugee camps for one or two years. Today, refugees come after living in refugee camps for 20 years, she said, noting they are often better educated and speak more English.
She worries about the future of the refugee program.
“I’m worried about the refugees that are here waiting for their kids, waiting for their spouses, and come to the institute daily saying, ‘What have you heard?’ ” she said. “And we don’t have answers for them, and people are very emotional.”