Immigrant's Song

POPULAR IMAGES AND tired jokes aside, the days are long gone when immigration to Minnesota meant a stream of Swedes, Norwegians, and Germans. In the past two years, the state has quietly ranked among the top 20 in the U.S. in the number of refugees and immigrants received. And while immigration has become a hot-button issue on the coasts and in the sunbelt, people in this state have generally regarded the influx of "foreigners" with more equanimity; it's barely discussed. So where exactly does Minnesota's immigrant and refugee population--some 90,000-plus souls during the period of 1978-94--hail from?

Southeast Asians have been the dominant immigrants in Minnesota over the past 15 years, comprising four of the top five nationalities during that time. While the arrival of the Hmong has created more attention and caused more cultural adjustments, the largest immigrant group has been Vietnamese. Generally wealthier, more literate, and otherwise more "Westernized" than their Hmong counterparts, the Vietnamese have had more diverse job skills and settlement patterns, allowing them smoother entree into the state's economy.

Koreans rank third on the list. Precious few, if any, came as refugees; a large share are engineers and other professional workers. Part of the number is also due to the period in the late '70s and early '80s when Korean government policy allowed a considerable number of children to be adopted by American families.

Because the Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service stopped listing state-by-state counts for Cambodian immigrants beginning in 1989, the exact number of who have come to Minnesota is uncertain. But the state's refugee figures indicate that Cambodians and non-Hmong Laotians are also well-represented in Minnesota. Many of them, particularly among the Cambodians, were as unprepared for Western culture as the Hmong were, and have faced similar language and employment barriers. They have tended to settle more in Minneapolis. The number of incoming Cambodian and Laotian arrivals has plummeted during the 1990s.

By contrast, the second largest group of immigrants to Minnesota since 1990 are from the various republics of the former Soviet Union, many of them Jewish refugees facing religious persecution. For reasons that are clear to no one, former residents of the Ukraine have tended to resettle in St. Paul, while Russians have tended to cluster in Minneapolis. Those who have the means to get this far tend to be highly educated; their ranks include classical musicians, doctors, professors, engineers.

The cultural obstacles they encounter are often profound. As Sheldon Olkon of Jewish Family Services in St. Paul points out, most former Soviets had spent their entire lives in a static, state-managed economy where job changes were infrequent; that's made it especially hard for professionals to start over in more service-oriented and blue-collar positions. In addition, regulations in the former Soviet republics compel many refugees to arrive with no wealth and just two suitcases of possessions, leaving them virtually penniless upon their arrival.

Some of the immigrant and refugee influx isn't neatly reflected by any statistical measure. A case in point involves people of the African nation of Somalia, few of whom have immigrated directly to this state. It's estimated that more than 5,000 Somalis have ended up in Minnesota as the civil war intensified in their country over the past few years, creating a refugee population nearly as large as that of the Cambodians and Laotians. But many don't show up in immigration records, according to Abdisalan Hussein of the local chapter of Somali Community Mutual Assistance, because the overwhelming majority come via California, particularly San Diego, lured by family and the prospect of work. "Where they come from," he says, "people are shooting each other and they don't know why. They don't want to die for no reason."

In the Twin Cities, they have tended to settle in Minneapolis, in low-income housing along Franklin, Portland, and Cedar Avenues; outstate, they have gravitated to factory work in Marshall and Austin. Hussein says that permanent employment has been difficult to find in the Twin Cities, and that many jobs obtained through temporary agencies tend to be discontinued just days before an employer would have to hire the worker full-time. Many Somalis are trying to support their families living back home, but among the younger male refugees, Hussein concedes that the lure of gangs and juvenile delinquency are concerns. "They grew up in a civil war and are confused. They think being a gangster is cool but they don't really know what it means."

 
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