Immigration has a business case in Minnesota — and a faith case

SOMALI MINNESOTA

SOURCE: STAR TRIBUNE . 

Collegeville, Minn. — Minnesota’s working-age population is forecast to stay nearly constant in size for the next decade or two, Ellen Wolter of Wilder Research’s Minnesota Compass told a dozen mixed-denomination Greater Minnesota Christian clergy last week. By 2024, the state is forecast to be home to 3.4 million people between ages 18 and 64, and to have 3.1 million jobs to fill.

Then there’s no worker shortage to worry about? a hopeful voice asked.

Sadly, there is, Wolter explained. The proportion of working-age Minnesota adults who are actually employed has rarely exceeded 78 percent. “We aren’t going to have enough people to fill jobs. You’re already starting to see that across the state … . We’re going to need to rely not only on older adults, but also on foreign-born residents to fill these positions.”

“Do our politicians know this?” asked the Rev. Salim Kaderbhai, who serves Lutheran churches in Madelia and Lake Crystal and is himself an immigrant. “Can we print this slide and mail it to them?”

The address I’d recommend: 1600 Pennsylvania Av. NW, Washington, DC 20500.

President Donald Trump’s cold anti-immigration heart may be warming regarding the young people — 10,200 of them Minnesotans — enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It was hard to be sure. Last week’s presidential immigration rhetoric ranged from hopeful to shifty to utterly contemptible.

But Trump has never so much as hinted at awareness that states like Minnesota are short not of “jobs, jobs, jobs” but of “workers, workers, workers,” and that immigrants can be key to easing that strain. The politicians Minnesota sends to Washington and St. Paul often don’t seem to have picked up on that changed reality, either.

The state’s clergy, by comparison, don’t need a lot of convincing, based on comments at a session of Collegeville Institute’s Rural Minnesota Fellows Program at St. John’s University. I had come to moderate a panel on strategies for increasing the size of the Greater Minnesota workforce.

Not surprisingly, welcoming more immigrants was a featured idea. What may have surprised the churchfolk was the professional affiliation of the panelist tapped to make that case: Bill Blazar, a senior vice president at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. The need for more immigrants evidently is so keenly felt in these parts that the state’s Republican-allied business lobby is willing to stand apart from the Republican president to make that case.

Since 2014, Minnesota’s economy has grown faster than its supply of workers, and that gap is projected to increase, Blazar said. That’s a major problem in a state that has long touted the quality of its workforce as its prime economic asset.

The nods of agreement in the St. John’s Abbey Guesthouse room suggested that Blazar was preaching to the choir. But the choir then voiced some of the questions about immigration they hear from their parishioners.

Aren’t immigrants taking “our” jobs? they asked. No, Blazar said. Without immigrants to fill jobs, whole companies could disappear, he warned. “They won’t put up with having the opportunity to grow and not having the workers to fuel that growth. They’ll say, ‘I just can’t do it in Minnesota’ and go elsewhere. We’re already seeing some of that.”

Aren’t immigrants a drain on public services? they asked. Maybe so in their first few years in the state, Blazar responded. But the picture usually changes quickly. For example, by 2010, 49 percent of the refugee Hmong population that began arriving in Minnesota a generation ago were homeowners. Immigrant entrepreneurs now employ more than 60,000 of their fellow Minnesotans.

Aren’t immigrants sending money out of the country? So did my Russian immigrant ancestors 100 years ago, Blazar related. But now as then, those same immigrants also work, pay rent, buy groceries and goods, and start businesses here. Minnesota is a net gainer.

Aren’t immigrants changing Minnesota’s culture? Yes — but change is a fact of life. And clergy are in the facts-of-life business.

To be sure, the change that has come to some places in Greater Minnesota has been dramatic. Worthington now has a larger share of foreign-born residents — 32 percent — than any metro-area municipality. People of color accounted for 20 percent of the St. Cloud population in 2016, according to the American Community Survey; as recently as 1990, their share was 3 percent. More than 20 businesses in and around downtown Willmar are owned by Somali-Americans.

But many of the Greater Minnesota communities that have not seen an influx of immigrants are also experiencing rapid demographic change. It’s the kind that makes folks wonder whether they’ll still have a grocery store or gas station in town next year.

The economic case for more immigration is not the only one in its favor, and may not be the most compelling one. Every major religion includes an imperative to welcome the stranger. Every faith encourages the building of supportive local communities, the kind that help people not just cope with change but thrive through it.

My guess is that the clergy members in the Rural Fellows program are already delivering that message. And that they came away from Collegeville last week with a notion I share: The solution to Minnesota’s workforce shortage in the next decade may at least in part be faith-based.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.