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Column: Let's make immigration work for Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS -- If you want to understand the real immigration issues in Minnesota, visit Willmar. While other parts of the state were losing population and seeing little job growth, Willmar added jobs, expanded school enrollment and saw its downtown core revitalized.

Then talk to a demographer who will warn that Minnesota's resident workforce is not replenishing itself, and younger workers are needed to fund the social safety net for an aging population. Though the labor supply seems plentiful now, it's already lacking in some manufacturing industries with shortages projected in fields like nursing and home health care.

Immigration has proven to be a boon for many Minnesota communities and neighborhoods -- revitalizing school districts, propping up tax bases and stimulating local economies. And the facts show that immigrants can and will play an increasing role in sustaining and energizing our economy in coming decades.

The Minneapolis Foundation and Minnesota Chamber of Commerce have a shared interest in sustaining our state's competitive edge and exceptional quality of life. In that regard, we encourage constructive dialogue on how to make immigration work for Minnesota.

Immigrants contribute to our economy in many key ways, including:

l As workers with skills in key industries. Native-born Minnesotans increasingly reject lower-skilled jobs and leave rural areas. Leaders of meat packing, hospitality and other rural industries will tell you they couldn't survive without immigrants' skills and labor. At present, one of two Minnesota dairy cows is milked by a Latino worker.

Immigrants are important at the other end of the wage and skill spectrum, too. In Minnesota, immigrants hold the same proportion of college degrees as the native population and they are well represented in high-tech industries here.

l As consumers and taxpayers. While the statewide impact of immigrant consumer spending is relatively modest, it can have a profound effect when immigrants settle in previously declining communities, patronize local businesses and open new enterprises. In south-central Minnesota, a recent study showed that 2,600 Latino workers -- native and foreign born -- purchased goods and services that translated into another 4,100 jobs in the region.

l As innovators and entrepreneurs. Minnesota has always had a largely homegrown economy, one based on businesses that started here and expanded. Again, immigrants have a role to play: nationally, immigrants start new businesses at a rate about 70 percent above that the native-born population. A quarter of engineering and technology companies have had at least one foreign-born founder.

Yet Minnesota is underrepresented in creating businesses -- ranking fifth from the bottom among states for immigrant start-ups as a percent of population.

l As connectors to the global economy. Minnesota needs more than immigrants' labor and entrepreneurialism. We need their capital and connections. Today on the Iron Range, Minnesota's mining and minerals and steel industries are being revitalized by investments from Indian, Brazilian and Japanese-based companies. International companies and immigrant inventors tend to locate where there are large immigrant communities and where diversity is valued.

Of course, immigration brings immediate costs as well as benefits.

With a poverty rate at three times the native-born rate, immigrants and their children may need more public support to help them transition to productive lives in the years ahead. That can add stress on already struggling towns and neighborhoods that receive them. Different languages, customs and family structures can make some Minnesotans feel threatened by the changes they see. While Minnesota's immigrant population is relatively small -- at 6.5 percent it is just half the national average -- it is unusually diverse with new residents representing a greater variety of nationalities and ethnicities than immigration populations in other parts of the country.

So what can we do?

We can turn our increasing diversity into a business development asset, encouraging more inventors and investors who can create jobs and wealth in our state.

We can learn from experienced communities like Willmar that have become adept at accepting and benefiting from growing immigrant populations.

We can reconsider policies such as those that discourage the arrival of immigrants ready to work, create divisions in our communities, or keep aid where immigrants arrive instead of where they settle.

And we can elevate the discussion about immigration, focusing on the facts and on what's best for the future of Minnesota.

Sandy Vargas is president and CEO of The Minneapolis Foundation. William Blazar is senior vice president of public affairs and business development at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.