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Minnesota seeing impact as fewer refugees resettle across the US

ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) -- In recent years, there has been a significant drop in the number of refugees resettling in Minnesota.

In the 2016 calendar year, 3,009 refugees resettled in the state, according to statistics from the Refugee Processing Center. In 2017, the number dropped to 918 and fell even lower in 2018, to 668. In 2019, 891 refugees resettled in Minnesota.

Data from the Refugee Processing Center

These figures mirror a national trend. Pew Research reported that in 2018, for the first time since the Refugee Act in 1980, the United States was not the country that resettled the most refugees, resettling 23,000 while Canada resettled 28,000. Before 2017, the United States had accepted more refugees than every other country combined.

Refugees, whom are distinct from asylum seekers, are processed overseas and travel to the U.S. once their application is approved. They are fleeing dangerous circumstances such as war, persecution or natural disasters.

According to Phillip Connor, a senior researcher at Pew Research who has studied data on refugee arrivals, the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. has historically mirrored the number worldwide.

“In most recent years, however, the big difference is the number of refugees worldwide has increased, whereas the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. has sharply decreased,” Connor said.

This trend is expected to continue with the 2020 cap of 18,000 refugees that the Trump administration has announced. 

According to Minnesota Refugee Coordinator Rachele King, that is the lowest cap in the history of the program.

“The U.S. resettlement program, up until the last two years, had really been seen as an international model of success and the U.S. had been seen as a leader,” King said. However, in the past two years, that has changed, she added.

Policy changes taking effect

According to Minnesota State Demographer Susan Brower, the declining number of refugees resettled in Minnesota is not only due to lower caps on a national level, but also has to do with a stricter screening process for some countries, including Somalia. Minnesota has historically seen a higher proportion of refugees within its immigrant population than other states, Brower said. 

Data from the Refugee Processing Center

In September, President Donald Trump signed an executive order, making it so both states and counties must consent if they want to continue to resettle refugees. 

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced in December that Minnesota would continue to resettle refugees, stating that "the inn is not full in Minnesota.”

However, to Beltrami County in northern Minnesota, it may be. The board of commissioners voted 3 to 2 to deny resettlement, becoming the first county in the state and the second in the country to vote against resettlement, the Associated Press reported.

As of Jan. 9, 19 counties in Minnesota have voted to consent to refugee resettlement, including Olmsted County.

King said she has found it encouraging that even in counties where refugee resettlement is unlikely, people are still voting yes.

Population, jobs and economic impact

Still, the slowdown in incoming refugees comes at a time when Minnesota is seeing fewer births, fewer immigrants and less domestic movement into the state, according to the 2019 Census. State Demographer Susan Brower said she believes if the state is going to continue to grow, the growth will have to come from international immigration by about 2040.

“Refugee resettlement has been going on for decades in Minnesota and has been part of how we have grown as a state,” Brower said.

Minnesota is also seeing a high number of jobs in industries, such as food service and retail, that are not being filled, according to Brower. She noted that Department of Employment and Economic Development numbers suggest that the state has far more jobs than people to fill them.

“It’s pretty unique to Minnesota,” Brower said. “The economy is doing well in the United States across the board, but particularly in Minnesota we’ve seen very low unemployment for a very long time.”

Brower said she’s heard employers tell her that they want to grow their business but can’t because they are unable to fill the jobs they already have open. She said from her perspective, as someone who looks at labor force and economics, the benefits of refugee resettlement are clear.

“Some of the economic pain that people are feeling, that’s there, too,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that the jobs aren’t there and the need isn’t there for more people. Sometimes people join those two realities in their head when they’re not related.”

Polarized opinions

The issue of refugee resettlement has been divisive in recent years. Pew Research reported that opinion polls show that Americans are deeply polarized on whether the U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees.

King said she believes a misconception people have is that refugees come to the U.S. and remain on public assistance for a long period of time. King said while people who fled their home countries often do not have many possessions and resettle into poverty, many quickly become self-sufficient.

For example, while refugees continue to arrive in the U.S., the number of people on public assistance is not continually rising, she said.

King said the Department of Health Services publishes a self-support index, in which data shows that typically immigrant populations that include refugees are more successful at accessing and staying off of public support than some other categories of people on public support.

Finding a new home in Minnesota

“Resettlement makes our community stronger,” King said. “It makes our community stronger by the positive economic impacts that happen through the participation, the hard work and the resiliency of our new neighbors.”

She said she would challenge people who have concerns about refugees coming into Minnesota to learn more about the issue, to ask questions and to be open.

“I think that Minnesotans believe in treating people with respect and dignity and I’m from Minnesota, and that’s been my experience here,” King said. “I think welcoming people in Minnesota is part of the tradition of Minnesota, and it’s what has made Minnesota a great place to live.”

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Nicole Valinote

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