ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Refugee settlement is a hot topic for Americans today. But, the U.S. has been accepting people displaced by life-threatening situations in their home countries for decades. The U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 created a standardized system of immigration and resettlement. It created the Office of Refugee Resettlement, formally establishing the federal government as the resettlement authority and funding source. However, resettlement services are actually carried out by state governments and nine non-governmental resettlement agencies operating nationwide. Based on agency and community capacity, among other factors, some states have taken more refugees than others. The state of Minnesota has particularly developed a reputation as a refugee landing spot. Here is information on the Minnesota refugee resettlement.
Minnesota Refugee Resettlement
As of 2018, Minnesota had “the highest number of refugees per capita of any state, according to the U.S. Census and refugee support agencies.” In the 2005 fiscal year, Minnesota was at its peak, admitting 124 refugees per 100,000 residents. The state has a substantial Somali and Hmong refugee population. It has recently seen an influx of refugees from other countries, including Liberia, Burma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and former Soviet Union countries. Resettlement leaders and refugees highlight a number of reasons why Minnesota works well as a refugee landing spot.
Financial Resettlement Support
Per U.S. federal law, for every refugee sponsored, refugee resettlement agencies receive $2,175 out of which $1,175 must directly assist the refugee. Then refugees are eligible for general state welfare programs based on standard qualifications. In case a refugee doesn’t meet such qualifications for needed programs like Medicaid and the Minnesota Family Investment Program, there are refugee-specific programs available, including Refugee Medical Assistance and Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA), a monthly cash allotment.
The additional benefits look different in each state depending on state programs. In Minnesota, RCA is given to single adults or childless couples in the first eight months of residency to give them to find work since those groups don’t qualify for federal Supplemental Security Income or the Minnesota Family Investment Program. Once a refugee finds work, RCA benefits are reduced or terminated. However, about ten years ago, Minnesota incorporated into its Minnesota Family Investment Program a statute called Family Stabilization Services, which essentially gave refugees more time to job hunt and learn English or get other forms of education to improve their employability.
Also helpful to resettlement is that several agencies operate in Minnesota. Agency responsibilities include assigning refugees to communities, finding them housing and connecting them with opportunities for job training and education, including English language courses. “Almost anywhere we resettle our families, they have access to free English classes,” says Krista Allgor, Arrive Ministries’ director of refugee arrival services. “That’s a massive resource almost all our clients take advantage of.”
Healthcare and Employment
Beyond refugee-specific benefits, Minnesota has a lot to offer residents. For example, its renowned healthcare system. “Minnesota has a really amazing healthcare system, I think, compared to a lot of other states,” says Allgor. “Especially for low income or no income individuals. It’s very helpful for [refugees]when they’re starting out to have [affordable]healthcare.”
Minnesota also offers jobs. According to Ben Walen, director of refugee services for the resettlement agency Minnesota Council of Churches (MCC), unemployment in Minnesota is among one of the lowest in the country. He notes, “I think wages tend to be a little higher here, too.” Rachele King, Minnesota State Refugee Coordinator, says refugees often get jobs quickly. In fact, Walen says 100 percent of the refugees who were part of one of MCC’s employment programs, which included more than half of the 200 total arrivals MCC welcomed in 2019, found employment within six months of arrival. The healthy job market supports a secondary element of resettlement success, too: community buy-in.
Improving the Economy
Resettlement agencies say they haven’t encountered significant community resistance to resettlement, and they believe it’s partly because there’s a recognized need for refugees. Amid a statewide (and nationwide) workforce shortage, King says refugees are “helping fill critical workforce needs in Minnesota.” In 2012, immigrants, as a whole but including refugees, made up 9 percent of Minnesota’s workforce in 2012. They’ll soon be needed more than ever since 20.3 percent of the U.S. population will be older than 65 by 2030.
Not only are refugees filling open jobs but they are also giving back. The New American Economy report stated that in Minnesota in 2015, refugees contributed $227.2 million in state and local tax revenue. In fact, immigrants throughout the country paid $20.9 billion in taxes in 2016. In some states, refugee-owned businesses double those of the general population. What’s more, other research shows that after eight years, refugees in America, in general, begin paying more in taxes than they received in public benefits.
A Welcoming Community
But Minnesotans don’t necessarily need statistics to support resettlement. Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), says Minnesotans are intrinsically welcoming. Jamal Ali, a refugee who came to America from Iraq in 2009, agrees. “Minnesotans are welcoming refugees from all different cultures, religions,” says Ali, 63, of Minneapolis. “I’m not saying 100 percent… but compared to other states and what I’ve heard from friends… Minnesotans don’t have discrimination against minorities and other cultures.”
King notes community support is evident in philanthropic contributions toward resettlement. “Minnesota has a reputation for its philanthropic community, and I think that community has really done a good job in investing in the assets and opportunity that resettlement and other immigration brings to our state,” says King. Resettlement agencies say community support is crucial for resettlement.
Minnesota has a long history of resettlement. Minnesota established its state resettlement office in 1979, just before the Refugee Act even took effect. After all those years, agencies have built strong ties with community partners needed for seamless resettlement. John Meyers, director of refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities, says, “We have a really good network of support. It makes our job a lot easier.”
A history of resettlement in Minnesota also means some refugees have family members here to lean on. King says refugees do get to request for resettlement locations where relatives live. In fact, about 95 percent of Minnesota refugees have pre-existing connections in the state. With larger refugee families come larger established refugee communities overall. Thus, resources are managed by or comprised of people from one’s own community.
Vayong Moua’s family was part of the first Hmong refugee wave. In 1976, he and his parents came to Eau Claire when he was a baby. Moua, 44 says back then, there were no cultural resources to rely on. Now, there are several Hmong-led organizations providing resettlement support. What’s more, refugees often get jobs as interpreters to help healthcare systems and other institutions respond to the influx of immigrants.
Moua’s mother became a translator for the Eau Claire public health department. His father became executive director of the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association. As Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota’s director of health equity advocacy, Moua helps address socioeconomic inequality in Minnesota healthcare. Meanwhile, Jamal Ali, his cousin and his wife all became interpreters, helping immigrants and refugees with health, legal, or other needs. “I have a good opportunity to teach refugees how to break out of their barriers and learn, and I have so much success stories,” says Ali.
The Good with the Bad
Challenges remain for refugees and resettlement. For example, many refugees are unable to continue careers they had before fleeing their homes. Jamal Ali went from being an aircraft engineer to being an interpreter. His wife was an anesthesiologist. When she was told she’d have to go through schooling again to practice in the U.S., she suffered depression. She became an interpreter instead. Ali’s daughter had studied as a pharmacist but was going to have to start over, so she switched to physiology. His son had an Iraqi license as an aircraft mechanic, but he had to take a job pushing carts at Target before getting his U.S. license. The refugee’s road to employment—and good employment—isn’t easy.
Then there’s the obstacle of equality and discrimination. Though there are cross-cultural bonds among refugees and general community acceptance, Moua says there is still significant systemic racial inequity in Minnesota. Hussein says hate groups abound. Tensions have risen in recent years thanks to increased politicization of refugee resettlements.
Walen says resettlement used to go under the radar, but now people are expressing one opinion or another about it and incorrect information has spread about the motivation, costs and benefits of refugees and resettlement. There are a lot of misconceptions. “People think refugees get $1,200 a month for the first two years,” have cars handed to them, don’t have to work, etc., according to Hussein. They say counties shouldn’t have to pay and can’t afford it.
“Refugees are not here to be a leech on society and drain public resources,” says Moua. “They contribute to the culture and the common good in terms of culture, economics, workforce. People forget that ripple effect of prosperity.”
Living the Dream
Overall, Minnesota has unique strengths and the outlook on resettlement is positive. Despite his family’s initial struggles to get good jobs, Ali says things are good now. In fact, they bought a house in 2012. “We’re settled, and as they say, ‘we are living the American Dream,’” says Ali.
Hussein points to things like the election of refugee-turned-U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar as a good sign. He says there are “remarkable things” happening in Minnesota that aren’t happening anywhere else. “[It shows] what is possible when people are able to see beyond the identities… and judge people based on their character and content, not their race and religious identity,” says Hussein.
Minnesota refugee resettlement has been a huge part of the community in the state. “Our goals for refugees and immigrants are the same goals the state has for every person in Minnesota—that they’re able to thrive and contribute to their communities,” says King. “It’s not just refugee Minnesota and non-refugee Minnesota—together, we’re Minnesota.”
– Amanda Ostuni