Report: Immigrants important to Minnesota

Gillaspy, Robertson, Fennelly

Immigrants are important to Minnesota’s economy, especially for rural areas, a new report indicates.

"Immigration stimulates job creation," according to the business coalition report. "As industries expand and hire new workers, jobs are created to maintain this larger workforce and to supply its needs for goods and services. Without new, young workers, certain sectors of the economy will continue to contract. By one estimate, if immigrants were removed from the labor force, Minnesota would lose over 24,000 permanent jobs and $1.2 billion in personal income."

The report was prepared by the state Chamber of Commerce, Agri-Growth Council, Nursery and Landscape Association, Milk Producers Association and Hospitality Minnesota. Authors were professor Katherine Fennelly and graduate student Anne Huart of the University of Minnesota.

A Thursday panel discussion at the university showed widespread agreement among professors, business leaders and even a Mexican government official. All said immigrants can help the economy.

State Demographer Tom Gillaspy said Minnesota’s labor force growth is about to take a massive hit as baby boomers reach retirement age. Without immigrants to take over the jobs, the state’s economy will falter, he said. The average age of a Minnesota worker today is 18 years older than it was in 1998, he added, and many immigrants are younger and less educated people who will take jobs that now may go vacant.

By 2020, Gillaspy said, more Minnesotans will be retired than in school, a first for the state.

Immigrants "fill in the gaps almost perfectly," added professor Raymond Robertson of Macalester College.

Fennelly said one of the major problems facing immigrants who want to work is the length of time it takes to receive work visas.

"We have an enormous need for a younger workforce," she said, but federal laws are slowing down immigration.

Foreign-born people account for the majority of new Minnesota workers.

About 334,000 foreign-born people lived in Minnesota in 2007, 6.5 percent of the population, half of the national percentage.

The report’s authors say that federal officials need to reform immigration laws, including granting more visas so immigrants can fill open jobs. At the same time, the report says, the state must improve immigrants’ high school graduation rates and should provide more job-training programs.

Immigrants hold both high-skill and low-skill jobs.

Nationally, a quarter of physicians are foreign born, as are 40 percent of engineers with doctoral degrees.

Rural Minnesota is especially hard hit by doctor shortages. Those communities are home to 13 percent of Minnesotans, but only 5 percent of the state’s doctors live in them.

One problem the report points out is a shortage of 8,000 registered nurses in rural Minnesota, but it takes an average of six years for an immigrant nurse to be grated legal residence status.

As the population ages, many rural jobs will be affected.

"The consequences of a graying population in rural Minnesota communities include a smaller workforce, school closings and shrinking consumer bases for local businesses, to name a few," the report says.

Meat and poultry processing jobs have been increasingly filled with Hispanic, African and Southeast Asian immigrants. That has prevented a more severe rural population loss.

Those foreign-born residents helped improve the economy in counties that otherwise would have lost population.

Minnesota schools should thank immigrants, the report says. "Given the striking declines in enrollment that would have occurred without Latino children, it is clear that the children of immigrants are keeping many rural schools from closing or consolidating. This is significant because, even with the enrollment of children of immigrants, between 2001 and 2006, 75 percent of Minnesota school districts experienced declining enrollments."

While Mexico provides most immigrants, that may be about to end, according to Ana Luisa Fajer Flores, consul general of Mexico in St. Paul.

In about 10 years, Mexicans will not be leaving their home country as much, she said. In the meantime, Flores added, immigrants are in the United States and Americans need to integrate them into society.

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The full report is on the Web: www.hhh.umn.edu/people/kfennelly/kfennreport.pdf

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