Living in America

Meet the neighbors


But let's leave aside the question of "illegal alien residents," as some Latino immigrants are called, for a moment. Initially, I was inclined to look at this story as a treatise on what I was calling the "immigrant experience." Which missed the point.

"The question is, what do we mean by that?" asks Katherine Fennelly, a population expert at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. "There is no one immigrant experience, and to merely talk about these population changes in terms of immigration is to exclude many people, entire groups, new to the state."

Bill Cameron

What Fennelly refers to is the large number of refugees found in Minnesota. Refugees, legally speaking, are different from immigrants in that they are allowed into the country by the U.S. State Department under special circumstances. The U.S. refugee policy, made into law with the Refugee Act of 1980, "embodies the American tradition of granting refuge to diverse groups suffering or fearing persecution." The Act works in accordance with a United Nations policy adopted in 1951.

The policy mainly identifies refugees as people who can't live in or return to their native countries "because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion."

(The act was signed by President Carter and made a point of addressing the problems of those fleeing communist regimes, especially Russian Jews. Also, at the time, the Carter administration was grappling with large numbers of Cuban and Haitian refugees arriving in Florida, hoping to settle in the States. But the upshot was that the U.S., in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, soon saw a huge influx of Southeast Asians.)

Nationwide, the percentage of new arrivals to the United States who are refugees is about 10 percent. Here at home, according to John Borden of the International Institute of Minnesota, it's closer to 50 percent. The institute's latest study puts the number of refugees in Minnesota at roughly 158,000, which on its face is 65 percent of Minnesotans who claimed to be foreign-born in the 2000 census.

"What's unique in Minnesota is that we have a relatively low number of actual immigrants," says Borden, adding that seven Minnesota nonprofits have connections to 12 national groups. (Borden notes that his nonprofit is the only "non-ecclesiastical" group involved in resettlement in Minnesota.) "We took large numbers of Vietnamese and Hmong in the 1970s, and we've brought in large numbers of Hmong and Somalis since."

But it's worth noting that the actual refugee figures--though more easy to track than counting illegals--rarely ever jibe. The State Department says, for example, that 3,488 refugees were placed in Minnesota in 2000; the Minnesota Department of Health adds 500 to that figure.

At the end of 2000, the U.N. had identified 12 million refugees worldwide, but only a relative few would likely gain entrance to the U.S. Each year, the State Department sets a cap on the number of refugees the U.S. will take. Refugee advocates will cry partisanship when talking about these numbers--with Republicans incurring their wrath--but in reality the figures seem rooted in geopolitical situations more than any real homeland agenda.

Throughout the Reagan years, the cap was usually set around 70,000. The first Bush administration kept the same cap, but frequently allowed more than 100,000 refugees into the country, a trend that continued into the first term of the Clinton administration. Much of this was due in part to the wars in Bosnia and Rwanda. Numbers soon fell below 70,000 in the latter half of 1990, and during the current Bush administration, that has been reduced again, and a cap of 50,000 was set in 2002. (By contrast, the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. in 1990 was set at 700,000.)

Since 9/11, however, the number of refugees admitted has fallen drastically, to fewer than 25,000 in 2002, while the latest studies put the number of refugees around the world at 20 million. These refugees are, in this post-9/11 era, waiting in camps around the world.


A popular assumption is that Minnesota is active in resettlement because of Lutheran and Catholic church groups, and while that is partially true, ultimately it's the State Department that decides who gets resettled where. Twelve national nonprofits get contracts for so many refugees per year, and the State Department grants money based on that number. In 2000, for instance, three-quarters of the roughly 73,000 refugees admitted into the United States were settled in 15 different states. California resettled the largest number, at 13 percent, while Minnesota came in sixth, taking in roughly four percent.

There is a 30-year history involved here. In the early 1970s, Minnesota saw its first wave of refugees, in the form of defectors arriving from the Soviet Union. In a few years, with the end of the Vietnam War, suddenly there were huge pockets of Southeast Asians who could no longer live in their homelands. During that time, many of these people had been mired in battles between communist North Vietnam and the U.S.-backed South Vietnam. Those who chose to--or were coerced to--side with the United States were left in danger when North Vietnam prevailed. Oppression and executions were the currency of payback.

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