Wednesday, May 19, 2010

African influx reshapes immigration to Minnesota

Last update: May 15, 2010 - 9:59 PM

For the first time ever, the continent is the source of a majority of Minnesota's legal immigrants, with Somalis topping the list.

The flow of immigrants to Minnesota is quietly reaching record highs amid signs of what could prove to be a profound and lasting shift in their continents of origin.

For the first time ever, African nations are supplying more than half the state's legal immigrants. Four countries from that continent now stand atop the list.

Arrivals are doubling and quadrupling from countries such as Kenya and Liberia even as numbers are tapering off, for a variety of reasons, from past immigrant taproots such as India, Thailand and Russia, federal data show.

Africans say they are attracted here for the same reasons as others -- quality of life, good schools for their kids -- with the additional twist of Minnesota's reputation in parts of that continent as being receptive to immigrants with funny accents.

"Minnesota holds a very prominent place in the minds of Liberians," said Ahmed Sirleaf, of Advocates for Human Rights, a worldwide nonprofit based in Minneapolis. "I've heard people there say that Minnesota is one of the very few states where an immigrant with an accent can be hired to work in his chosen profession. In other places, most people have to stay in odd jobs.

"I don't think this movement is going to slow down or stop at some point."

At a time of severe job losses, the rise in the sheer number of immigrants, combined with their increasing likelihood of being black and Muslim, creates the conditions for a backlash.

But demographers are warning that Minnesotans should be grateful for anyone who chooses to plant stakes in the frozen north these days, at a time when Minnesota's population growth has slowed and dozens of its counties are slowly emptying.

The arrivals won't put a huge dent in the state's mostly European-origin demographics any time soon: We're still talking about 18,000 total immigrants counted last year in a state of 5.26 million. But the federal government only closely tracks a portion of the total flow, and the trend shows no signs of slowing down.

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