An assistant commissioner of immigrant and refugee affairs will soon report to Gov. Tim Walz, as the administration works to expand economic opportunities for new Americans and make it easier for them to start businesses and find work.
The person who fills the position, which will be housed at the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), will be tasked with working across state agencies to help immigrants and refugees overcome barriers in the workforce — from recognizing foreign academic credentials to examining challenges related to child care. Its creation comes as Minnesota faces a workforce shortage with 150,000 job vacancies.
It's important to "uncover every pool of talent that exists in our labor market," said DEED Commissioner Steve Grove. "Immigrants and refugees … have been a growing source of talent for some time now, so having this champion inside DEED will be a good step to accelerate that."
New York, Nevada and Michigan are among the states that have offices for new Americans, and in recent years Minneapolis and St. Paul have created positions dedicated to immigrant and refugee services.
"The proliferation of positions like this represents a fundamental recognition that immigrant and refugee communities are critical to the vitality of our cities and to the state as a whole," Michelle Rivero, director of the Minneapolis Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, said in an e-mail. "These positions also enable state and local officials to receive valuable insight and direction regarding local impact of federal immigration developments and identify ways to respond to federal initiatives that are damaging to immigrant and refugee communities."
A job posting said the position would pay between $99,702 and $142,610 a year. The position would partly be funded by outside grants, though DEED did not specify what they were.
Wynfred Russell said the creation of the job is an example of the commitment the administration has made to diversity and inclusion.
Community groups have been pushing for the state to give immigrants and refugee groups "an opportunity to be at the table and be a part of the formal economy. And I think that this move is in that direction," said Russell, director of strategic partnerships for African Career, Education and Resource Inc. in Brooklyn Park.
Russell, also a Brooklyn Park City Council member, said many immigrants come here highly educated but are sometimes sidelined because of their accents or advanced degrees earned from outside the U.S.
"Immigrant groups and refugees have been embraced and taken more seriously, so when you have an office dedicated to supporting them and mainstreaming them, I think that is only going to increase their participation and their involvement in the development of the community and the state," Russell said.
Grove said he wants the state to do more to figure out how to work with immigrants who have foreign credentials.
"You don't want an Uber driver with a Ph.D. — you want to make sure people are using their skills," he said.
DEED noted that immigrants account for nearly 40% of butchers and meatpackers, more than 30% of software developers and computer application and system engineers, and more than 18% of personal-care aides.
Grove said immigrant groups have said that they want state government to be simpler to access, to treat them as more than an afterthought, and have more tailored approaches to their communities.
"I don't think we've always done that," Grove said. "We've tried, but there's a lot more we could do."
For example, he's been surprised that so many of the agency's resources are only in English, and he wants to think about making them more available in other languages. He also wants the assistant commissioner to be visible in immigrant communities, rather than sitting at a desk in St. Paul.
"We need to make sure that when we have business loans available or economic incentive dollars, that we're not seeing just the usual suspects show up and apply," said Grove. "You can't just sit here at DEED and expect people to know about your program — you need to get out in the community and do outreach."