Investing in Immigrants in Minnesota & the Midwest

Blog Post
March 19, 2015

During the 1980s and 1990s, I lived in a corner of Michigan that was particularly buffeted by the pressures of globalization. Our area’s auto plant closed and the local pharmaceutical company gradually left town through a series of buyouts and corporate mergers. Our town was nothing unique in this regard—just another Rust Belt community at the mercy of macroeconomic forces well beyond its control.

Nor was it unique in terms of population. Like many other struggling Rust Belt communities, racial diversity in my town was largely binary—classrooms were balanced between African-American and white students.

An essay published this week at the Brookings Institute explores links between this limited diversity and my hometown’s struggling economy. In that piece, “The Changing Face of the Heartland,” the Aspen Institute’s Jennifer Bradley explores “the demographic revolution”—fueled by immigration—changing the state of Minnesota.

“The region has twice the share of immigrants from Southeast Asia as the United States as a whole,” Bradley writes. “And five times the share of immigrants from Africa as the nation as a whole.”

The coming retirement of the state’s aging Baby Boomers should come right on time for these newcomers. As older, mostly-white workers leave the workforce, recent immigrants ought to be in line to take their places (and pay the taxes that will support the retirees’ old-age benefits). Bradley cites one county administrator who estimates that “more than a third of his workforce” will soon be eligible for retirement. That’s a lot of open slots—and a lot of opportunities for immigrant workers to advance.

That’s the theory, anyway. In his outstanding book, Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Richard C. Longworth pointed out that the Midwestern communities with the brightest present—and future—are those that have been able to attract large numbers of immigrants. In a chapter titled, “The New Midwesterners,” Longworth writes:

Everywhere in the Midwest, small, old blue-collar towns, isolated and out-of-date, left behind by globalization, are simply withering away. And everywhere in the Midwest, exceptions exist...These towns are growing, even thriving...If these towns have a future—indeed, if the Midwest has a future—it depends on immigrants. Midwestern cities know this. Every urban area is losing native-born residents. The only cities that are growing and thriving, such as Chicago and Minneapolis, are pulling in immigrants and building a future.

But Longworth is clear-eyed about the dynamics. Immigration-fueled population growth brings challenges to accompany the opportunities. He notes that it presents schools—like the overwhelmingly English-dominant ones in my hometown—with new linguistic diversity that they may or may not be prepared to support.

Bradley finds the same challenges in Minnesota. The state’s rising diversity is “only good news” she writes, “[if] that workforce has been educated and trained to take on the challenges of the 21st century.” Racial inequities in access to high-quality schools are a serious problem. Unsurprisingly, these lead to serious achievement gaps between students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

In response, local leaders in Minneapolis have built the Northside Achievement Zone, a Promise Neighborhood effort that takes “a more holistic and collaborative approach” to supporting low-income students in the area. State leaders passed the Learning for English Academic Proficiency and Success (LEAPS) Act last year in an effort to make schools and districts more responsive to the state’s growing linguistic diversity.

The rest of the Midwest is taking notes. Cities like Detroit and Cleveland are hemorrhaging people—and their economies and tax bases are declining at corresponding rates. In response, these cities (and their states) are exploring ways to attract immigrants of their own. And since the Midwest is something of a bellwether for the rest of the country as far as the pressures of globalization are concerned, states beyond the Midwest may also find useful lessons in Minnesota’s experience.

Fittingly, the White House Task Force on New Americans is due to release its “Integration Plan” tomorrow, which will outline ways the government can support “civic, economic, and linguistic integration of new Americans” (for more on this, check out the Migration Policy Institute’s excellent resources here). If Minnesota’s experience is any indication, successful integration of these immigrants will have a major effect on determining the course of the country’s schools, workforce, and economy.

Note: This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work.