Two Other Minnesota Cities Celebrate Diversity

Previous posts have discussed the positive impacts of immigrants on the southwestern Minnesota city of Worthington (Micropolitan Pop. 20,500 (2018)).  Now two other Minnesota outstate cities (southeastern Austin and northwestern Roseau) have joined the chorus.

Austin, Minnesota[1]

The city of Austin, population 25,190 (2018 est.) is the county seat of southeastern Mower County bordering Iowa to the south. It is the corporate headquarters of Hormel Foods Corp., a Fortune 500 company that grew out of the town’s small late 19th century butcher shop owned by George A. Hormel. In early January this year the county board gave its unanimous consent to resettlement of refugees.

“From 1% minority population in 1980 to 31% today, . . . [Austin’s] transformation has been profound. Immigrants from six continents call Austin home. Schools count more minority students than white students, with 48 different languages being spoken in classrooms. A medley of ethnic dining options and food markets surround the Spam Museum along Main Street downtown.”

The city’s high school basketball team, the Packers, has helped draw this diverse community together. For example, the winning last-second basket in a recent game was scored by Agwa Nywesh, an Ethiopian-American born in Austin.  “Hundreds of students storm the court and took “turns hugging him. White kids, and African kids, and Asian kids, and Hispanic kids. Rich kids, poor kids. All celebrating. The big victories, they bring people together.”

The high school’s soccer program is also successful, becoming a state-tournament regular. “Hold up a mirror to this team and Austin’s diversity stares back. The roster includes a mix of white, Hispanic, Karenni and African players, and one teammate from Poland.”

In its “swelling school district, 37% of students speak a primary language other than English, double the statewide average. One in 12 children here was born outside of the United States, and many more were raised speaking their parents’ native language.” In response , “cultural liaisons were hired to be ‘success coaches’ for students of different ethnic communities. Santino Deng, the success coach for the African community, describes his job as ‘like 9-1-1.’”

Adjusting to these changes was not easy. According to the city’s mayor, Tom Stiehm, at first “you have that big blank space in your head and we just have a tendency to fill it with negative things. Once I got to learn the community and learn the people,” he changed. “It’s the wave of the future. You can either ride that wave or you can drown. I tell people, it doesn’t matter what you like. This is going to happen, and you better acclimate yourself to it.”

“A Welcome Center opened on Main Street, and Taste of the Nations events offered foods from different cultures, including hot dish from the ladies at the Lutheran church. The Hormel Foundation, which pours more than $9 million annually into Mower County with many initiatives, partnered with the YMCA to create a kid-friendly membership: $1 per year, per kid. One night, more than 700 kids — many of them Sudanese — checked into the Y within a four-hour period.”

“City leaders have begun including new voices in high-profile settings. The City Council established a rotating, honorary seat that goes to a leader from an immigrant community. That person doesn’t vote but serves for three months sitting alongside the city attorney and police chief at meetings.”

“Over time, immigrant families found their footing, becoming permanent citizens, taxpayers, homeowners, neighbors. Their kids filled schools, and immigrants opened businesses downtown.”

All of this prompted the state’s main newspaper, the StarTribune, to salute Austin in an editorial. “At a time when so much public discussion about immigrants and immigration is negative — with overblown, fear-inducing narratives about criminal activity, building walls and keeping people out — a Minnesota town is demonstrating how new Americans can strengthen a community.”

 Roseau, Minnesota[2]

The city of Roseau, population 2,660 (2018 est.), is the county seat of Roseau County bordering Canada. A predecessor of Polaris Industries started its history there in 1954 with a prototype of a snowmobile, and the town still has the company’s main manufacturing plant for snowmobiles, all-terrain-vehicles (“ATVs”) and other products along with the company’s R&D.

Roseau, however, has an aging, declining population like most other small communities in the state and as a result has a major challenge in meeting Polaris’ demand for workers. Steve Hine, a research economist for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said,  “There aren’t enough young people being born in Roseau County and staying in Roseau County to meet the needs of an expanding company like Polaris.”

A year ago Polaris hired a Puerto Rican recruiting firm to find a partial solution for a plant that consistently has about 70 job openings — and could add 70 more jobs if it could find the workers. In so doing, the company recognized that Puerto Rico might be a ready source of workers as it was suffering from hurricanes and more recently earthquakes and as its residents were U.S. citizens.

This recruiting effort has been successful. “On a recent weeknight, some 150 people crowded into Polaris’ fancy new lobby to celebrate the newcomers. A Puerto Rican made 80 pounds of pork butt. The manager of Roseau’s town ball team recruited Puerto Rican ballplayers. One Puerto Rican couple danced merengue. It was the biggest turnout Roseau’s Civic and Commerce Association has ever had.”

One of the newcomers, Ricardo Rojas, had been “a successful network systems engineer for a health insurer in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the mortgage on his $345,000 house was paid off, and his daughter was attending private school. Then he got laid off, . . . [and he] struggled to find steady work. . . . [His] home value plummeted. Jobs became even more scarce.” Now the job at Polaris “was a lifeline: double the pay of a manufacturing job back home, with full benefits, plus a better education for his 14-year-old daughter, who wants to be a doctor.”

Another Puerto Rican newcomer, Edwin Colón Pérez, “had worked at a medical manufacturing company in Puerto Rico, where he made $10.81 an hour. But production plummeted after the hurricane. Colleagues were laid off. Pérez has two children, 5 and 10, so he jumped at the opportunity to work 12-hour night shifts on Polaris’ manufacturing line, where he bends pipes in tube fabrication. He was excited to live in a place the high school principal describes as ‘Mayberry in the ’60s.’”

More generally, the Puerto Ricans “have filled the town’s housing — in apartments, in rental houses, in converted church basements — and brought diversity to this generations-long Scandinavian outpost.” They also “work at the AmericInn and at the bakery at Super One Foods. One Polaris employee hopes to open a restaurant featuring island specialties like mofongo and alcapurria. The wife of another hopes to start a school dance team. They worship at churches and drink beers at Legends Sports Pub and Grill. At a high school lip-sync competition, a new student rapped in Spanish a song he’d written. The 500 students erupted in applause.”

Rev. Steve Hoffer, pastor at Roseau Evangelical Covenant Church, welcomes the Puerto Ricans to the town. Along with six other churches, his church collected donated furniture and bedding, winter coats and used cars for the newcomers and bought plane tickets for families while Polaris paid for travel and temporary lodging for each worker. Said Pastor Hoffer,  “This is a win-win-win for everyone. This is a win for Polaris because companies up here in the northwest corner of Minnesota have a hard time finding employees. It’s a win for our community because it helps broaden the overall perspective of our town. There’s a world of people out there with very different experiences than people who have been here their entire lives. And it’s a win for the folks who are moving here, because this is an economic opportunity they simply didn’t have in Puerto Rico.”

Comments

These two towns remind one of Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’s recent consent to resettlement of refugees. In his letter to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, the Governor said, “Minnesota has a strong moral tradition of welcoming those who seek refuge. Our state has always stepped forward to help those who are fleeing desperate situations and need a safe place to call home.” Moreover, he said, “Refugees strengthen our communities. Bringing new cultures and fresh perspectives, they contribute to the social fabric of our state. Opening businesses and supporting existing ones, they are critical to the success of our economy. Refugees are doctors and bus drivers. They are entrepreneurs and police officers. They are students and teachers. They are our neighbors.” (Emphasis in original.)[3]

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[1] Austin, Minnesota, Wikipedia; Mower County, Minnesota, Wikipedia; Mower County Online; Hormel Foods Corp.;Minnesota Counties’ Actions on Refugee Resettlement, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 15, 2020); Scoggins, Austin’s True Colors, StarTribune (Feb. 23, 2020); Editorial, A salute to Austin—a welcoming Minnesota town, StarTribune (Mar. 2, 2020).

[2] Forgrave, Puerto Rican connection brings workers, diversity to Roseau, StarTribune (Mar. 7, 2020); Flores, Photography: Puerto Rican families make their home in Roseau, StarTribune (Mar. 8, 2020); Roseau, Minnesota, Wikipedia; Roseau County, Minnesota, Wikipedia; Roseau County, Welcome; Polaris Inc., Wikipedia; Polaris Industries, Inc.

[3]  Minnesota and Minneapolis Say “Yes” to Refugees, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 14, 2019).

 

Minnesota and Minneapolis Say “Yes” to Refugees   

As noted in a prior post, President Trump on September 28 issued an executive order requiring state and local governments to provide written consents to refugee resettlements for Fiscal 2020 and the States of Utah and North Dakota thereafter provided such  consents with three of the latter’s counties doing the same. We now await until the January 31, 2020 deadline to see what other states and localities do in response to this challenge.

Now the State of Minnesota and its City of Minneapolis have joined the affirmative choir.[1]

State of Minnesota

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’s December 13 letter to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo stated, “Minnesota has a strong moral tradition of welcoming those who seek refuge. Our state has always stepped forward to help those who are fleeing desperate situations and need a safe place to call home. In keeping with this proud history, I offer my consent to continue refugee resettlement in the State of Minnesota.”

“Refugees strengthen our communities. Bringing new cultures and fresh perspectives, they contribute to the social fabric of our state. Opening businesses and supporting existing ones, they are critical to the success of our economy. Refugees are doctors and bus drivers. They are entrepreneurs and police officers. They are students and teachers. They are our neighbors.” (Emphasis in original.)

The letter concluded, “I reject the intent of the President’s Executive Order on Enhancing State and Local Involvement in Refugee Resettlement, and we reserve our right to challenge the Executive Order’s requirements. As the Holiday Season approaches, we are reminded of the importance of welcoming all who seek shelter. The inn is not full in Minnesota.” (Emphasis added,)

The concluding sentence—“the Inn is not full in Minneapolis”—invoked the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph’s discovering that the inns in Bethlehem were full and having to stay in a manger. The sentence also is seen as a retort to Prsdient Trump’s declaration on the U.S.-Mexico border last April that the U.S. immigration system is overburdened and that “our country is full” and to Trump’s October campaign rally in Minneapolis when he criticized Minnesota’s acceptance of Somali refugees.

City of Minneapolis

Also on December 13, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously adopted a resolution noting that “the state of Minnesota and the city of Minneapolis are home to some of the largest and most diverse populations of refugees and immigrants in the United States, adding to the economic strength and cultural richness of our community.” This document then resolved that “the Mayor and City Council do hereby reaffirm the City’s status as a Welcoming City, and a city that strongly supports resettling refugees without regard to race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, or country of origin.” In addition, the “City of Minneapolis hereby pledges to continue to work diligently with resettlement organizations to accept refugees into the City and to improve refugee integration.” The final paragraph of the resolution directed “the City Clerk to send certified copies of this resolution to the President of the United States and the members of the federal delegation representing the State of Minnesota to the United States Congress to express the City’s strong support for the ongoing resettlement of refugees.”

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey is expected to approve this resolution.

Other Minnesota Commentary

The State’s largest counties—Hennepin (Minneapolis) and Ramsey (St. Paul)—are expected to issue similar consents.

Also on December 13, the State’s Attorney General—Keith Ellison– joined a 12-state court amicus brief backing three refugee resettlement organizations that have sued the Trump administration over the president’s executive order requiring state and local consent to such resettlements. The states argue that the order violates federal law, interferes with state sovereignty, “undermines family reunification efforts, and disrupts the states’ abilities to deliver essential resources that help refugees contribute to the communities that welcome them.” According to Ellison, “Minnesotans want everyone to live with the same dignity and respect that they want for themselves. This includes the many refugees we have resettled here, who have given back many times over to the state, communities, and neighbors that have welcomed them. I’m challenging the President’s order on behalf of the people of Minnesota because it is illegal and immoral.”

A newspaper from western Minnesota— Alexandria Echo Press,  added, “The Minnesota Department of Human Services reports that 775 refugees have been placed in Minnesota in 2019, down significantly compared to previous years. And of those placed, the bulk of the refugees came from Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo” plus 69 from Ukraine and 67 from Somalia.

A longer-term perspective was provided by the Pioneer Press from St. Paul. It said, “Minnesota has the country’s largest Somali and Karen populations, the second-largest Hmong population and one of the largest Liberian populations — all made up of people who fled their war-torn homelands as well as their descendants. According to State Department data, Minnesota ranks sixth in the country for refugee arrivals since 2001, accepting over 43,000 individuals.”

Conclusion

Congratulations to the State of Minnesota and the City of Minneapolis for standing up for resettlement of refugees, each of whom already has established overseas to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees that he or she, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”[2]

On December 17, this Minnesota action was endorsed in an editorial in the state’s leading newspaper, the StarTribune. It applauded “Gov. Tim Walz . . . for his forceful declaration of Minnesota values in his letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.”  The editorial also noted, “Minnesota has a proud tradition of welcoming immigrants — particularly refugees,” who “have proved, overall, a bountiful investment.”[3]

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[1] Office of MN Governor, Governor Walz to Trump Administration: ‘The Inn is Not Full in Minnesota,’ (Dec. 13, 2019); Assoc. Press, Governor on Refugees: ‘The Inn Is Not Full in Minnesota,’ N.Y. Times (Dec. 13, 2019); Montemayor, Gov. Tim Walz to Trump on refugees: ‘The inn is not full in Minnesota,’ StarTribune (Dec. 13, 2019);

Minneapolis City Council, Resolution Supporting the resettlement of refugees in the City of Minneapolis (Dec. 13, 2019); Minnesota Attorney General, Attorney General Ellison defends refugees against President Trump’s unlawful executive order (Dec. 13, 2019); Ferguson, ‘The inn is not full’: Walz approves additional refugee placements in Minnesota, Alexandria Echo Press (Dec. 13, 2019); Magan, ‘The inn is not full’—Walz pledges support for refugees as MN joins lawsuit, Pioneer Press (Dec. 13, 2019).

[2] UNHCR, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (entered into force April 22, 1954  (Art. 1(A)(2).

[3] Editorial, Minnesota’s doors, hearts remain open to refugees, StarTribune (Dec. 17, 2019)