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A View from Minnesota

Demographic Trends and Data


In 1990, immigrants made up 3% of Minnesota’s total population. That percentage grew to 5% in 2000, and to 7% in 2010.

The figures below compare the share of the immigrant population in Minnesota compared with other states in the Midwest, and the growth in that population between 1990 and 2010.

The foreign-born population in Minnesota grew by 235% between 1990 and 2010.


Over the past decade, Minnesota has emerged as the Midwest’s principal gateway state for refugees. Since 2000, Minnesota has accepted 35,410 refugees from 43 countries. This amounts to more refugees admitted since FY 2000 than any Midwestern state. Minnesota is currently home to the largest Somali refugee community in the United States, admitting 14,312 since FY 2000. It is also home to the country’s second largest Hmong refugee community (principally from Laos) after California with 5,271 arriving since FY 2000. In fact, St. Paul hosts the largest urban concentration of Hmong in the world. Minnesota also hosts significant refugee populations from Burma (3,546), Ethiopia (3,526), Liberia (2,639), and the former Soviet Union (2,268). On average, an additional 186 asylees arrive in the state each year.

In addition to accepting more refugees than any other Midwestern state, refugees make up a larger percentage of Minnesota’s total foreign born population than almost any other state in the region, roughly 8.9% as of FY 2010. It is also more than five times greater than the proportion of refugees to total foreign born nationwide. Between 2000 and 2005, more refugees engaging in “secondary migration” (5,790) settled in Minnesota than any other state.

Minnesota hosts more refugees from Africa than any other Midwestern state. In the past 10 years, Africans have made up roughly 82% of all refugee arrivals to the state. Though often overshadowed by the large number Somali arrivals, Minnesota is also home to a Liberian community that is one of the largest anywhere in the world outside of West Africa. Many Liberians entered the state as refugees following extremely violent civil conflicts that raged in the country from 1989 to 1997 and again from 1997 until 2003. Thousands more came to Minnesota with some other immigration status and have subsequently filed for asylum or temporary protected status (TPS). Minnesota is also home to the Midwest’s largest Ethiopian population  and by some estimates hosts the largest ethnic Oromo population, a significant and often violently oppressed ethnic minority in Ethiopia, in the United States.

The principal resettlement agencies operating in Minnesota include: Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of St. Paul (St. Paul); Catholic Charities Diocese of Winona (Rochester); International Institute of Minnesota (St. Paul); Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota (Minneapolis and Pelican Rapids); Minnesota Council of Churches (Minneapolis); World Relief Minneapolis/St. Paul (Richfield). The Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area continues to act as the primary resettlement hub for refugees arriving in Minnesota. However, refugee communities are springing up in smaller cities and towns throughout the state. Rochester, Marshall, and Owatonna now have significant Somali populations, while Duluth and Taylor’s Falls are home to a growing number of Hmong. The majority of Liberians in the state have settled in the suburban communities of Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center. In recent years, employment opportunities in the food processing industry also have drawn an increasing number of immigrants to rural communities such as Faribault, Albert Lea, and Willmar. The secondary migration of refugee families to these communities can often follow this broader trend.


The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the proportion of undocumented immigrants, as a share of the total population of Minnesota, more than quadrupled between 1990 and 2010, though the proportion of undocumented persons remains relatively small. It is important to emphasize that these numbers are only broad estimates. The actual numbers may be quite different.

The figure below compares the estimated percent of the total population that is undocumented in Minnesota among the 12 Midwestern states and the United States.



Ten percent of the population in Minneapolis/St Paul suburbs were foreign-born in 2010, compared with 9% of urban and 2% of rural residents. Between 2000 and 2010 the population increased most dramatically in rural areas.

An examination of data on all of the immigrants living in metropolitan areas in Minnesota demonstrates that the overwhelming majority (83%) live in Minneapolis/St Paul. The Duluth and Rochester metropolitan areas saw their share of Foreign-born residents decrease slightly between 2000 and 2010.


In Minnesota, and across the region, in 2010 a larger percentage of immigrants (54%) than US-born residents (52%) were currently married. Not surprisingly, the total household size of the foreign-born was also larger—3.25 individuals, compared with 2.4 for the native-born. Household members can be either relatives, or unrelated individuals.

Immigration History

Large numbers of Scandinavian immigrants began arriving in Minnesota in the early 19th century in response to land shortages in Sweden and Norway. The state’s sparse population and bounty of arable land made it appealing to aspiring farmers. There were also political forces that drove this first wave of immigrants to Minnesota: Swedes fled their native country’s state-sponsored Lutheran church and forced military conscription; Norwegians fled their country’s restrictive voting laws and rigid socioeconomic system.

Scandinavian immigrants were soon joined by Germans, first fleeing the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, and then pursuing the cheap land promised under the Homestead Act of 1862. Between 1850 and 1870, Minnesota’s population grew at an astounding rate, from a mere 6,077 to 439,706 over a span of just 20 years. This boom created substantial gains in wealth, and led to further recruitment efforts by the state government aimed at increasing foreign immigration. During the American Civil War era, Minnesota sponsored a statewide writing contest, soliciting essays extolling the virtues and opportunities the state had to offer. The winning essays were subsequently translated into German, Swedish and Norwegian, and sent across the Atlantic in hopes of attracting European immigrants to the state.

In the latter half of the 20th century, Minnesota’s immigrant population began to grow rapidly, both in size and diversity. In the 1970s, large groups of Mexican and Hmong immigrants began to settle in the state. The Hmong, an ethnic minority from Southeast Asia, had allied with the United States during the Vietnam War, and had later been subject to reprisals and persecution by the Communist regimes of Laos and Vietnam. There were 66,181 Hmong refugees living in Minnesota as of 2010, making it home to the largest Hmong population in the country.

Mexican immigrants began arriving in the state, in response to economic crises and poor farming conditions in Mexico during the late 1970s. Beginning in the 1990s, the Mexican immigrants were joined by Hispanic immigrants from Central and South America.  Between 2000 and 2009, the state’s foreign-born Hispanic population grew by 67 percent.

Another contemporary immigrant group of note are Somalis, who began arriving during turmoil in Somalia in the early 1990s. Minnesota is now home to the largest Somali population in the country. Because the state takes in a large number of refugees relative to the national average, this list is far from exhaustive. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the wars in the Balkans brought many Eastern European refugees to Minnesota, as have various other contemporary conflicts across the globe.


In its simplest form ‘immigrant assimilation’ refers to a process whereby, over time, immigrants become indistinguishable from native-born residents.  This process is neither one-way, nor linear, and not all changes lead to improved status.  It also ignores the myriad ways in which native-born residents are influenced by immigrants.

To the general public two of the most visible markers of assimilation are language proficiency and socio-economic status.  Clusters of poor, ethnically or racially distinct foreign-born residents with low levels of schooling and English proficiency perpetuate perceptions of difference and foster the impression that contemporary immigrants are not assimilating as quickly as white Europeans who came to the US at the beginning of the 20th century.  Unfortunately, such perceptions are rarely accompanied by analyses of barriers to assimilation, or support for programs that might accelerate the integration of new immigrants.

Differences in such measures as English language ability, home ownership and income depend upon much more than whether an individual was born outside or inside of the US.  There are important differences in the ease of assimilation that depend upon the age and skill level that an immigrant has when he or she enters the country, and the kinds of opportunities that are available after arrival.  It is important to keep these factors in mind when comparing the experiences of immigrants in various states or regions of the US.


The general public often perceives immigrants to be concentrated in low-level jobs, but in actuality immigrant workers are fairly well dispersed across the skills spectrum; the most rapid growth in the employment of immigrants since 2000 has been in middle-skilled jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a college degree.  However the greatest increase in projected numbers of new jobs are in those that require low-levels of education and training.  Between 1990 and 2006 the share of immigrant workers in each of the four employment sectors increased dramatically and outpaced the increase in native-born workers’ jobs in rate of increase, but not in absolute numbers, with the exception of construction.

Median earnings for the foreign-born and native-born in Minnesota are shown below for 2010, and then median earnings of the foreign-born are further stratified by period of entry.  It can be noted that the foreign-born who arrived in the earlier waves before 1990, or between 1990 and 2000, have higher median earnings than those who have arrived more recently.


In 2006 46% of foreign-born workers earned “family-sustaining wages,” compared to 59% of native-born workers.  The percentages of foreign-born and native-born living below 100% of the Poverty Level in Minnesota are shown below for 2010.

One indication of assimilation over time is that the poverty rate for naturalized citizens was considerably lower than that for non-citizens. Because immigrants must be legal permanent residents for at least five years before naturalizing, the income difference may indicate that incomes are improving over time. It could also be the result of a “self selection” effect, whereby those individuals who elect to become citizens, and who learn enough English and civics to pass the citizenship test are also those who will achieve some economic success. It is likely that both factors are at work.

Immigrants who were born in Asia and Europe had considerably higher mean incomes than those born in Latin America (not shown).

Some kinds of demographic and socio-economic data are only available for racial/ethnic groups, rather than for immigrants. In the absence of data on such measures as home or buisness ownership among immigrant groups if may be of interest to compare these measures for Hispanics or Asians with the important caveat that the comparisons include a majority of native-born residents.

Data on business ownership from the 2010 Census shows that, consistent with Midwest trends, the Hispanic population own businesses at a lower rate than their proportion of the population.

Although the percentages of Minnesota businesses owned by US- or foreign-born Asians and Hispanics are small, they account for 11,371 and 5,002 firms respectively.   The positive impact of immigrant integration into the business sector in Minnesota is additionally indicated by the fact that in 2007  immigrant businesses had combined sales and receipts of $4 billion in Minnesota, and employed 22,920 workers.


Asians and Hispanics/Latinos have rates of home ownership that are similar to those in other Midwest states.  In the 2007 American Community Survey, the percentage of all Hispanics (foreign-born and native-born) who were homeowners was 34%.   Of the entire Asian population in Minnesota, 63% were homeowners.


Immigrants in Minnesota, and throughout the Midwest, had both higher and lower levels of education than native-born residents in 2010. By this we mean that they were both much more likely to have less than a high school diploma, and slightly more likely to have a graduate or professional degree. Educational attainment is a very important dimension of integration, as it is strongly related to other dimensions of integration such as income and English language proficiency. Nationally and in the Midwest, the children of immigrants tend to achieve higher levels of education than their parents,  although Caucasian and Asian youth go further in school than do Hispanics (or African Americans, few of whom are foreign-born).

In Minnesota, graduation rates were lower for Hispanic students (foreign-born and native-born combined) than for their Caucasian and Asian peers.

Similarly, the Hispanic dropout rate in Minnesota in the 2007-2008 school year (7.5%) was nearly equal with that of Black students (7.1%) but was almost four times that of White students (1.8%) and over two times the rate for Asian students (3.1%).

State testing data has come under scrutiny in recent years because of the connection between measures of student performance and federal funding levels.  However, if the data can be believed, state tests in Minnesota leave some room for optimism regarding improved student performance.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, grade 8 students from most racial and ethnic groups demonstrated slightly improved scores on state assessments of math and reading between 2005-6 and 2009-10, with a slight all-student 3% increase in reading, and no change in math. The scores for Hispanic students changed at similar rates to the state-wide averages.


Despite the challenges facing Hispanic students, national data show that second generation immigrants exceed their parents’ education levels.

Higher educational attainment among members of the second-generation is not specific to Mexicans; it is consistent across all immigrant groups.


English Proficiency is collected by self-report in the Census and American Community Survey.  Respondents can respond that they do not speak English, speak English only, or speak another language in addition to English. This final group is then divided further as they indicate how well they speak English as either “Very well,” “Well,” or “Not well.”  The chart below compares English Proficiency in the foreign-born population, showing the percent of the foreign-born who identified themselves as speaking English “Well,” “Very Well,” or as their native/only language. There was a slight increase in the percentage of those speaking English well or better from 2000 to 2010, but this increase is not significant; small levels of  change may be due to sampling error; larger differences are  likely be due to a combination of English language learning by foreign-born over time and higher English proficiency levels of more recent immigrants.

In 2010 79% of immigrants spoke English well, very well or fluently.

Levels of English language learning vary significantly within and between immigrant groups. More important than country of origin is the age at which an individual entered the US,  his or her level of education and literacy in the native language.  In Minnesota, 10% of the total state population spoke a language other than English at home in 2010,  and 4% of the total population spoke English less than very well.   Two percent of households were linguistically isolated (meaning that all members of the household age 14 and over were limited English proficient). The percentage of foreign-born residents who are limited English proficient (LEP) has remained below national LEP rates over the years.

As would be expected, the children of immigrants in Minnesota  speak English at a much higher average rate than the total population of foreign-born in the state.

Similarly, immigrants who have naturalized as U.S. citizens (and who are likely to have been in the country longer) have lower rates of LEP than noncitizens.


Linguistic integration, like other measures of integration, varies among different immigrant groups. Among the foreign-born ages 5 and older in Minnesota in 2009, those who spoke Spanish at home had the highest percent LEP, compared to speakers of Asian and Pacific, Indo-European, or other languages at home.


Though Hispanics in Minnesota and across the Midwest are more likely to be LEP than other groups, national data show that, in comparison to predominantly white, European immigrants from the early 20th Century, contemporary Hispanic and Latino immigrants learn English at faster rates within the first five years of arrival in the United States.   The same is true for the population of immigrants who arrived in the country between 1980 and 2000.


One of the clearest measures of integration is the rate at which immigrants become naturalized citizens of the United States. Naturalization not only means becoming an American citizen, but generally also requires a modest demonstration of knowledge of American civics, history, and basic English language skills. In Minnesota, 45% of all immigrants were naturalized citizens in 2010. Of immigrants in Minnesota who entered the United States before 1980, 83% were citizens in 2009, higher than the national average of 79%.   Not surprisingly, immigrants who have been in the country the longest are most likely to naturalize.

The figure below compares the percent of naturalized citizens in Minnesota and in the other eleven Midwest states, both in 2000 and in 2010.

In the 2008 elections, 4% of registered voters in Minnesota were naturalized citizens or the U.S.-born children of immigrants. This proportion of the voting population is bound to rise, considering that the foreign-born voting-eligible population increased by 68% from 2000-2006,  and that 86% of children with immigrant parents in Minnesota were U.S. citizens in 2009. As of 2012, however, representation of ethnic minorities among elected officials in Minnesota remains disproportionately low relative to their share of the population; while 4% of the total population is Asian, 5% is Hispanic, and 5% is Black/African American  only 2% of state legislators are ethnically Asian, 1% are Hispanic , and 1% are Black/African American.


Tomas Jiminez explained the value of intermarriage as an indication of integration by saying, “When individuals marry each other without regard to ethno-racial or national origin, it indicates that the social boundaries between groups are highly permeable.”  Jiminez also highlighted the interconnection of various integration measures by pointing out that intermarriage rates are determined, in part, by English language acquisition and socioeconomic status, which shape opportunities to interact with those of different ethnic or national origins.

Data on inter-marriages  between immigrants and native-born residents is not available, but between 2008 and 2010, 10.5% of all marriages in Minnesota were interracial or interethnic. While lower than the national average of 15%, this figure is nearly equal to the Midwest average (11%).




The state has passed 13 bills relating to immigration issues since 2008. Minnesota has enacted several recent laws for the benefit of its large refugee population, while also excluding undocumented immigrants from some public benefits.


2010 – Child Care (MN S 2505). This bill requires immigration status to be included on certain child care program applications.

2010 – Human Services (MN S 460). Undocumented non-citizens and immigrants are restricted from receiving general assistance medical care.

2010 – Health Occupations (MN S 525). This bill regulates tattoo artists and body artists, and allows clients to use resident alien cards as a valid form of identification for these services.

2010 – Ladder out of Poverty Task Force (MN S 1770). This act establishes the Ladder out of Poverty Task Force and ensures that immigrants will have the opportunity to present their proposals to the task force.

2009 – REAL ID Act Compliance (MN H 988). Under this law, the commissioner of public safety is prohibited from complying with the federal REAL ID Act.

2009 – Human Services (MN S 1503). This bill restricts adoption assistance funding to children that are United States citizens.

2009 – Government Operations (MN S 2802). This bill requires the state commission on Ethnic Heritage and New Americans to identify resources within the immigrant community that will foster fuller participation of immigrants in cultural, social, and political life in Minnesota.


According to the National Council of La Raza, an Arizona-style law enforcement bill was introduced in Minnesota in 2010, but was rejected or refused consideration.

2011 – Human Services (MN S 760). This bill would have required payments for emergency medical care that was provided to non-citizens, without regard to immigration status. The measure was vetoed by the governor.

2011 – Jobs, Economic Development, and Housing (MN S 887). This budget bill would have provided funding for immigrant and refugee programs to support English attainment, job coaching, and workforce development. The bill was vetoed by the governor.

2011 – Public Safety (MN S 958). This bill would have provided funding for the state to participate in the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement rapid REPAT program. The bill was vetoed by the governor.

2009 – State Government (MN S 2081). This budget bill would have provided funding for economic development, housing, and job training for refugees and immigrants. The bill was vetoed by the governor.

Labor Force Data

The proportion of immigrants in the US labor force almost doubled between 1990 and 2010—from 9 to 16 percent, at a time when the percentage of native-born workers decreased from 91 to 84 percent.  Although the foreign-born workforce makes up a relatively small percentage of the total labor force, it grew at a rate that was seven times faster rate than that for the native-born workforce.
About a third of immigrant workers in Minnesota were born in Latin America, and a third are from Asia.

Immigrant workers in the state make up a smaller percentage of the labor force than in the US as a whole.

The top industries employing immigrants and US-born workers in Minnesota in the state are similar, although foreign-born workers are more likely to work in professional, scientific, management, administrative and waste management positions, and are not heavily employed in retail trade.

Minnesota had a lower state-wide unemployment rate in January of 2011 than seven  other states in the Midwest; but mmigrants in the construction industry (not shown) were particularly hard-hit by the recession.

In spite of the recession, demand for immigrant workers continued, and the percentage of foreign-born civilian workers increased by 58% in Minnesota and by 40% nationally from 2000-2009.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an increased need for workers in a variety of high-skilled and low-skilled occupations, several of which have a shortage of US-born workers.


Although the foreign-born workforce makes up a relatively small percentage of the total labor force, it is growing at a much faster rate than the native-born workforce.

The foreign-born workforce in the Minnesota grew while the native-born labor force decreased over the period from 1990 to 2010.



Minesota has a small, but rapidly growing foreign-born population. Between 1990 and 2010 it was one of four states in the Midwest that had an increase of over 200%. Increases in the foreign-born population and work force  are key to the future prosperity of Minnesota and the Midwest region.

The most dramatic demographic shift in the United States today is the aging of the population – a development that increases the tax burden on young workers who make payroll contributions to cover the costs of Social Security and Medicare. Aging has been accelerated by the out-migration of young native-born workers, a phenomenon that Rogerson and Kim aptly call “the emptying of the Bread Basket of its breadwinners.”  A steady influx of immigrant workers is essential to maintaining a young and productive work force.

Who's Involved

  • Katherine Fennelly, Professor of Public Affairs, Humphrey School, University of Minnesota

    Katherine Fennelly is Professor of Public Affairs at the Hubert H. Humphrey School, University of Minnesota. Her research and outreach interests include the human rights of immigrants and refugees in the United States, and the preparedness of individuals, communities, and public institutions to adapt to demographic changes. She has been dean of the University of Minnesota Extension Service, a faculty member and department head at the Pennsylvania State University, and a faculty member at Columbia University School of Public Health.  Recent projects and publications focus on attitudes toward immigrants and their integration into American communities. Fennelly has worked and traveled extensively throughout Latin America. 

  • Les Heitke, Former Mayor, Willmar, Minnesota

    Les Heitke has served as the former Mayor of Willmar, Minnesota for 16 years and on the City council of Willmar for six years before his election as Mayor. Les is a licensed psychologist and is currently working fulltime for Project Turnabout in West Central Minnesota, with adults who have alcohol and chemical addiction problems and also individuals with gambling addiction problems. Les was President of the League of Minnesota Cities, where he created and led a state-wide task force on Diversity and Building Inclusive Communities. Les has helped to build, direct and develop three foundations in the West central Minnesota area.

  • Gopal Khanna, Senior Fellow, Technological Leadership Institute, University of Minnesota

    Gopal Khanna is a Senior Fellow at the Technological Leadership Institute at the University of Minnesota; founder & CEO of Winsarr, Inc., a Minneapolis based hi-tech start-up venture; and founder & Chair of Minnesota Innovation Lab, a non-profit organization. From 2005 to 2010, Khanna served as a member of Governor Tim Pawlenty’s cabinet. Prior to that he served in the administration of President George W. Bush, from 2002 to 2005, where he held several senior policy positions including CIO and CFO of the United States Peace Corps. Khanna is a first generation immigrant, who left home with $8 dollars in his pocket to pursue higher education in the United States. He attributes all of his success in the private sector and government to America’s ability to absorb peoples of all backgrounds into the American mainstream. 

  • John Rosenow, Chief Executive Officer and Co-owner, Rosenholm-Wolfe Dairy and Cosmo Inc.

    John Rosenow is co-owner and CEO of Rosenholm Wolfe Dairy and Cowsmo Inc. He helped found Puentes/Bridges, a non-profit that takes farmers to Mexico to learn the language and to visit the villages where their employees come from. He was chairman of the Council for Rural Initiatives which addressed immigrant labor in rural Wisconsin. He also offers entrepreneurship classes to his Mexican employees so that when they return to Mexico, they can start their own business if they so choose. He has traveled to Mexico six times to visit the families of his employees. John has received the Distinguished Wisconsin Agriculturist Award, among other awards.

  • Sandra Vargas, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Minneapolis Foundation

    Sandy Vargas is the President and CEO of The Minneapolis Foundation, one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the country. Ms. Vargas oversees the management of nearly $500 million in assets; the administration of more than 1,000 charitable funds created by individuals, families, and businesses; and the distribution of more than $30 million in grants each year. Among her recent recognition honors, she was profiled in the book Heroes Among Us in 2008, received WomenVenture’s Pioneer Award in 2009, and was awarded the Medal of Honor from St. Catherine’s University in 2010. 



  • Siyad Abdullahi – President & CEO, Pro-Health Care, Inc.
  • Deborah Cohen, Ph.D. – Associate Professor of History/ Director of Graduate Studies, University of Missouri-St. Louis
  • Mayor Betsy Hodges – Mayor, City of Minneapolis
  • John Keller – Executive Director, Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota
  • Minnesota Business Immigration Coalition
  • Eric P. Schwartz – Dean, Humphrey School of Public Affairs
  • Christine Sukalski – Reiland Farms, LLP
  • Nate Thompson – Graduate researcher, Humphrey School of Public Affairs
  • Kelly M. Thompson – Senior Case Manager & Policy Research Lead, Webber Law Firm, LLC
  • Larry Walker – Coordinator, Immigrant Bridges Email Network

State Events

To engage a broad community of Midwesterners in a conversation about immigration the “Task Force on Immigration and U.S. Economic Competitiveness: A View from the Midwest” has gone on the road to learn more about the immigrant communities throughout the region. The forums highlighted how immigrants contribute to local economies and the integration challenges local communities are facing, among other issues. 8 forums were held in the late summer and early fall. Local leaders participated. The diverse canvas of immigrant communities and local issues was put on full display.

A View from Minnesota


Moderated by Katherine Fennelly, Professor of Public Affairs, Humphrey School of Public Affairs,
 University of Minnesota
. In collaboration with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, The Minneapolis Foundation, The Minnesota Business and Immigration Coalition, the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, and ImmigrationWorks, USA.