Living in America

Meet the neighbors

As a result, many fled to international camps seeking refuge, and the U.S. faced a crisis of its own making. In 1979, the year before the U.S. refugee policy became law, Minnesota took in nearly 4,000 refugees. According to the state Health Department, all of them were from three countries exclusively--Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

That trend, in regard to Vietnam and Laos, continued well into the 1990s, which accounts for the large number of Hmong refugees in the Twin Cities. (The Hmong, historically, are nomadic, with no country to their name.) By the dawn of that decade, Russian and Ukrainian refugees, with the fall of the Soviet empire, were coming in large numbers again, at a clip of about 600 a year until 1997. By 1996, African refugees, predominantly Somali, started to eclipse the East Asian refugees. More than 2,100 Somalis arrived in Minnesota in 2000 alone, a one-year influx second only to the 4,000 Laotians who came in 1980.

Eventually, according to health department statistics, some 40,000 refugees came to Minnesota from Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia between 1979 and 2000. Refugees from the former Soviet Union totaled more than 7,000 during the same period. And more than 6,500 Somalis came to Minnesota in a much shorter time, from 1993 through 2002. All told, some 70,000 refugees to date have been officially resettled in the state in accordance with the Refugee Act of 1980.

Bill Cameron

But if these numbers--while reflecting an unusual pattern of new arrivals--seem small, it's because they are. Through federal and state agencies, refugees are relatively easy to account for on a national level. What is harder to figure, however, is a phenomenon called "secondary migration," where refugees who have been dispersed around the United States join friends and family in another metro area. Minneapolis-St. Paul, due to its stable job market, educational opportunities, and many social programs, tends to be a national center for secondary migration.

Recent news reports show that Africans are quickly eclipsing every other refugee group of the last quarter century, but even this is wrought with mitigating factors. For instance, there's much discussion as to how many Liberians are in Minnesota. The number has jumped by thousands in just the last two years. But, as state demographer Gillaspy notes, the current crisis in Liberia could go two ways: In the next few months, depending on the outcome of the strife, the local Liberian population could easily double, or just as easily "zero out." Even so, he says, there are about 3,500 Liberians here, a number that changes daily.

"The immigration and refugee system is complex as hell, and nobody really understands it," Borden asserts. "Another unique aspect in Minnesota is that we tend to do only 'family-reunification' cases. We only bring in refugees if there's already an anchor member of the family living here and working here. This leads to bigger, and more stable, communities."

In June, Borden used census data, along with state department numbers, to get what many believe to be a good estimate of refugees in Minnesota (though, by his reckoning, 90 percent reside in the metro area). He included not only secondary migration estimates, but also U.S.-born children of refugees and those who were granted citizenship. That's why Borden estimates the total refugee population to be about 158,000 statewide, more than twice the number originally settled here.

Of those, 52,000 are Hmong, 22,000 are Somali, 20,600 are Vietnamese and another 17,000 are Cambodian or Laotian. Ethiopians, coming in significant numbers in the last four years, now number about 8,500, according to Borden, and refugees from the former Soviet republics total about 7,000.

These figures alone mean that the number of foreign-born Minnesotans--not including Latinos or other "traditional" immigrants--has matched the state's previous high in the early 1900s. Then, Swedes, Norwegians, Germans, and Irish made the Twin Cities one of the dominant immigration centers in the country. A hundred years later, a similar influx happened, though one far removed from the folklore of Ellis Island.


African Americans have engaged in their own "secondary migration" to Minnesota in the last ten years as never before. And though they are Americans by birth, many of them are likewise refugees in a practical sense.

The Twin Cities have become a haven, so the legend goes, for black folks from depressed areas of Chicago, Detroit, and Gary, Indiana, looking to get a new start. Indeed, much of the political impetus behind denunciations of Minnesota's social programs stems from the tired old discourse about blacks migrating to Minnesota to lay back and collect welfare. The reality is bleaker.

In 1991, a USA Today study of FBI data revealed that blacks in St. Paul and Minneapolis were far more likely to be arrested on drug offenses than nearly anywhere else in the nation. Nationally, blacks were four times more likely than whites to be arrested for such offenses. St. Paul had fourth-highest disparity in the country; blacks were arrested on drug charges there 26 times more often than whites. In Minneapolis (number five on the list), the multiple was 22. The Twin Cities were the only major cities in the top ten.

There are other examples of disproportionate justice between blacks and whites in the state. According the Council on Crime and Justice, using data from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and FBI reports, blacks were ten times more likely to be arrested for "property offenses" in 1990. Through 1999, the numbers remained disparate, and by the mid-1990s, African Americans were 16 times more likely to be cited for those crimes.

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