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HOW IMMIGRANTS AND REFUGEES HAVE SHAPED THE STATE

Immigrants and Refugees in Minnesota: Connecting Past and Present

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"Immigrants" by Peter Wedin

Detail view of a wood-relief carving titled "Immigrants" by Peter Wedin, 1930.

The history of Minnesota, its statehood, and immigration are closely intertwined. In fact, it is impossible to discuss Minnesota history without detailing immigration in the past and present. The Ojibwe and Dakota people who have made this land their home for centuries were joined and then driven out or confined by European settler-colonists and immigrants in the nineteenth century. Minnesota became a home for Swedes, Irish, Germans, and Italians in the late nineteenth century, for Poles and Mexicans in the early twentieth century, and for Hmong, Khmer, Lao, Vietnamese, Mexican, Salvadoran, Karen, and Somali people in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Minnesota’s immigrant history reveals that state and federal legislation has impacted the movement of people to the state. When nativist sentiment rose, restrictive legislation often followed. The challenges of today’s political environment have again brought to light the xenophobia of the past. Restrictions and exclusions that Southern European, Chinese, and Jewish immigrants once faced are now aimed at Muslims and other war refugees seeking to make the United States and Minnesota their home.

SETTLER-COLONISTS AND TREATIES

When thinking about immigration to Minnesota, it is crucial to acknowledge the peoples that existed before the arrival of European immigrants and settler-colonists. The land inside the boundary of present-day Minnesota has long been inhabited by the Dakota and Ojibwe people. Some oral traditions state that the Dakota have lived in Mni Sota Makoce, their homeland, since their creation. Ojibwe people migrated there from the Northern Great Lakes region in the 1700s, prompting the Dakota to move deeper into the prairies and river valleys of the south and west.

Through a series of treaties, land cessions, and conflicts that culminated in the 1850s and 1860s, the US government exiled most of the Dakota and restricted the Ojibwe to reservations. European immigrants from the East Coast moved west, but their expansion came at a price for the original inhabitants of the land. The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux (1851) favored European immigrants who wanted to move deeper into Native lands. It resulted in, among other things, the cession of much of what is now southern and western Minnesota.

The late nineteenth century was an era of continued expansion justified by Manifest Destiny—the idea that settler-colonists were entitled and fated to cross the continent. It became the driving force of US territory purchases, treaties, and occupations. Given this mantra, it is not surprising that the Homestead Act of 1862 (and similar legislation that followed) granted homesteaders the right to settle on land newly owned by the federal government. By the end of the nineteenth century, it had granted land to more than 480,000 settler-colonists. Most of them were European immigrants unable to own land in their own countries who seized the enticing opportunity of moving to America. Many gravitated to the West and to new states and territories like Minnesota.

EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS

For the first European immigrants, Minnesota was a place where the dream of owning land could become a reality. The possibilities it offered for employment in the timber and mining industries, along with farming opportunities, enticed people to leave their birth countries. For many, the unknown landscapes of the Minnesota river valleys, prairies, and forests offered better conditions than their homelands, where overcrowding, land competition, and famine were chronic problems.

By the 1850s, settler-colonists with British roots had already ventured west to Minnesota Territory to create a “New England of the West.” Immigrants from Sweden, Norway, and Germany followed them throughout the 1860s and 1870s. They often made their way to areas where others from their home countries already lived, producing ethnic enclaves. Many Germans, for example, came to farming areas in the southern and central parts of the state.

Spurred on by the Homestead Act and the thousands of new arrivals, Minnesota established a Board of Immigration in 1867 to promote immigration to the state and to assist travelers on their way to the Upper Midwest. It published pamphlets, brochures, and maps to advertise public lands available for homesteading. Norwegians, in particular, responded enthusiastically and immigrated in such numbers that roughly 50,000 lived in Minnesota by 1870 and 120,000 by 1880. They gravitated to fertile rural areas in the south, to the Twin Cities, and, eventually, to parts of the Red River Valley and Buffalo River Valley.

The new immigrants quickly changed the makeup of Minnesota. By 1896, official voting instructions were offered in nine different languages: Czech, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, and Swedish. In the 1890s, 40 percent of the state’s population was foreign-born, compared to 11 percent of the US population overall. And by 1900, more than 60 percent of the state’s foreign-born population came from Germany, Norway, and Sweden. Jewish people from multiple countries came to Minnesota, too—first to St. Paul and Duluth and later to Eveleth, Virginia, Hibbing, and Chisholm.

Opportunities in a new land often came with feelings of isolation. A letter sent by Finnish immigrant Bert Aalto from Big Falls, Minnesota, to his friend Hilma Aerila in 1911 recounts his loneliness: “Time goes by fast these days. I have moved since I last wrote you. I am now working in a logging site. There aren’t many Finns here, except for the six of us.” To counter this feeling, people like Aalto joined ethnic organizations and churches that helped them maintain their language and cultural heritage. Their determination to preserve their culture was so strong that in 1912, Finns in Virginia, Minnesota, petitioned their local school board to substitute Finnish for German as a foreign language requirement. This kind of national pride hurt Germans in particular when the United States entered World War I and the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety branded it a sign of disloyalty. The MCPS and other groups harassed citizens of German descent during a wave of anti-immigrant nativism that lasted through 1919.

The early twentieth century saw changes in economic and living conditions in European countries that prompted more waves of immigrants to the US. Once established, like groups before them, these new immigrants served as springboards for the migration of their kin to Minnesota.

ASIAN IMMIGRANTS AND REFUGEES

The history of Asian immigration to Minnesota dates back to the mid-1870s, when the first Chinese immigrants sought to escape the hostility and racial violence of the West Coast. In 2018, over forty different ethnic groups make up the state’s Asian American and Asian immigrant and refugee communities. Their journeys and experiences differ in how and why they chose Minnesota to be their home.

“Immigrant” and “refugee” are not equivalent terms. An immigrant is someone who chooses to leave her country and live permanently in a new one. A refugee, on the other hand, is a person compelled by dangers at home—like war and persecution—to relocate to a safer place. Although many refugees plan to return to their birth countries when conditions there improve, circumstances often lead them to stay in their new homes for long periods of time, if not indefinitely.

Between the 1880s and the 1970s, US laws restricted the immigration of earlier groups while allowing in more recent refugees. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (repealed in 1943) was explicitly created to restrict the entry of Chinese people into the United States. Laws such as the 1917 Immigration Act imposed literacy tests on immigrants, created new categories of inadmissible persons, and barred immigration from much of Asia. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (the Hart‒Cellar Act) further shifted the demographics of the United States by eliminating a longstanding country-of-origin quota and establishing paths for family reunification.

The first documented Chinese immigrants to Minnesota arrived in 1876 and established laundries and restaurants in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Liang May Seen, the first woman of Chinese descent to live permanently in the state, arrived in Minneapolis after moving from San Francisco in the 1890s. For many Chinese people, cold weather in Minnesota was preferable to the racial violence they had encountered on the West Coast. As the nineteenth century progressed, their numbers grew in areas outside the Twin Cities. In Iron Range towns like Ebbing and Eveleth, population booms led to increased demand for goods and services. To meet that demand, Chinese immigrants on the Iron Range diversified their businesses and operated hotels and restaurants that catered to European immigrants.

Although Chinese immigrants experienced a less hostile environment in Minnesota than on the West Coast, discrimination remained an issue. Incidents of anti-Chinese vandalism were common. Even in the mid-twentieth century, when Chinese people purchased property, they found themselves barred from buying homes in affluent suburban towns. Over time, the Chinese American and immigrant communities diversified to include both families who had lived in Minnesota for decades and immigrants who qualified to settle based on family reunification goals or HB-1 visas.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 authorized the removal of Japanese immigrants, their American children, and other family members who lived on the West Coast. As a result, thousands of people were placed in American concentration camps. In Minnesota, organizations like the YWCA and War Relocation Authority—the same group charged with relocating Japanese Americans and immigrants—established a resettlement committee in St. Paul to help bring Japanese to Minnesota. Even after the war, however, anti-Japanese sentiment and housing discrimination were prevalent. In response, the Japanese American Citizen League opened a chapter in Minnesota in 1946 to advocate for the rights of Japanese Americans.

During and after World War II, thousands of refugees fled persecution; many had no homes to return to. This global crisis motivated the US to enact new legislation to allow the entrance of immigrants seeking refuge beyond the national quota set by the National Quota Act of 1924. The legislation's main target populations were those from Eastern European countries occupied by the Soviet Union. The subsequent Displaced Persons Act of 1948 provided assistance and resources to immigrants and refugees fleeing fascist persecution.

Assistance programs and social services infrastructures created after World War II were utilized again in the 1970s, when the global community experienced another refugee crisis. The collapse of American-supported governments in Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam in 1975 led to a mass exodus of refugees fleeing from repressive regimes. This included Hmong and Lao people who had fought against communist forces in Laos on behalf of the US Central Intelligence Agency. The Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975, signed by President Gerald Ford, conferred special status to Southeast Asian refugees, and they began arriving in Minnesota in the fall of 1975. Minnesota Governor Wendell R. Anderson established an Indochinese Resettlement Task Force (later renamed the Indochinese Refugee Resettlement Office) on December 1, 1975.

The US Congress and the public alike became concerned about the potential for millions of refugees to suddenly appear on American shores. This fear arose amid a severe economic crisis in the 1970s, which led some working-class Americans to believe that refugees were competing with them for scarce resources. Politicians felt that legislative action would bring the admission of refugees into congressional statutory control. In 1980, the Refugee Act created for the first time a US definition of refugee status and set up the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Passage of the act capped off the evolution of American refugee policy from the largely ad hoc, disjointed system in place after World War II to a more consistent set of policies and practices. Voluntary agencies (VOLAGS) in charge of resettling Southeast Asian refugees helped with the recruitment of sponsors, many of whom were members of church congregations.

Another notable Asian population in Minnesota is made up of Korean adoptees. Korean adoption to Minnesota began in 1953, shortly after the end of the United States’s direct involvement in the war in the Korean peninsula. VOLAGs such as Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota played a prominent role in facilitating the adoption of Korean children to Minnesota. Since the 1950s, an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 children from Korea have been adopted by Minnesota families.

Today, despite escaping war and experiencing trauma, refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam are thriving in Minnesota. Many actively participate in civic engagement; others have been elected to public office. In 2002, lawyer and former refugee Mee Moua became the first Hmong person elected to the Minnesota legislature—and to any state legislature. More recent refugees from Asia, like the Karen people of Myanmar and the Bhutanese, have also thrived. In the 2010s, Asian Americans (including recent immigrants and refugees) are the fastest-growing ethnic group in Minnesota.

LATINX IMMIGRANTS

Latinx people have made Minnesota their home since the early 1900s. Like immigrants before them, they came in search of economic opportunities. In Minnesota, Latinx men, women, and children worked hard in the sugar-beet fields of the western part of the state. In the 1920s they began to settle in neighborhoods in St. Paul and Minneapolis—notably Swede Hollow on the east side of St. Paul, once occupied by European immigrants. Latinx communities then, as now, centered around the west side of St. Paul and the city of West St. Paul.

Since their arrival, Latinx people have experienced and still are experiencing discrimination. During the labor shortage caused by the deployment of thousands of working-age people overseas to fight in World War II, the government-sponsored Bracero Program recruited Mexican immigrants to work in factories and meat-packing plants. When not wanted for their labor, members of the community became targets for forced deportation; in 1931, at least 15 percent of the Mexican residents of St. Paul’s West side were forcibly removed from their homes and repatriated to Mexico.

Like other immigrants before them, Latinx people established organizations and institutions throughout Minnesota to support one another. The Spanish Speaking Affairs Council (later renamed the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs), began in 1978. Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES) followed, incorporating in 1981 to deliver bilingual and bicultural social services to Latinxs throughout the Twin Cities. The Latino Economic Development Center (LED) officially formed in 2003, but its efforts can be tracked back to 1994 and the formation of a South Minneapolis Catholic Church: Sagrado Corazon de Jesus.

The deportation of Mexican and other Latinx immigrants continues in the twenty-first century. In the 2010s, conservative and nationalist politicians have targeted “Dreamers” (Latinxs who came to the United States as children with their undocumented parents) and pushed them to the forefront of immigration-reform debates. Refugees who fled ongoing conflict in El Salvador and came to the US after being assigned Temporary Protected Status (TPS) face the threat of losing their TPS and being forcibly deported.

The struggle to be recognized as American and overcome being labeled as perpetual foreigners remains constant for Latinx Minnesotans, most of whom are US-born. In 2018, there are over 276,000 Latinx people of diverse backgrounds living in the state, with the majority being of Mexican descent.

SOMALI REFUGEES

Most Somalis in the US are refugees or children of refugees who escaped a civil war in their homeland in the early 1990s. For many, living in refugee camps for decades has contributed to on-going trauma, which they continue to process in their new home.

Minnesota is home to the largest Somali diaspora community in the world. Its center is the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, known widely as “Little Mogadishu.” American Community Survey data states that there are nearly 47,000 Minnesotans with Somali ancestry. Social services and refugee resettlement agencies that were created to assist Southeast Asian refugees since 1975 have played a crucial role in resettling Somali refugees in Minnesota.

Like Finns in the nineteenth century, many Somalis in Minnesota have struggled to learn English while maintaining their native language and culture. Despite these challenges, they formed community-based and professional organizations to assist one another in housing, education, and civic engagement. A group of Somali refugees took action in 1994 to create the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, a non-profit group based in Minneapolis designed to provide social services to Somali Minnesotans. Somali Minnesotans have engaged fully in civic life and held public offices in several levels of government. Ilhan Omar, a Somali refugee who came with her family to Minneapolis in 1995, was elected in 2018 to serve Minnesota in the US House of Representatives.

Following the events of September 11, 2001, Somalis and Muslims in Minnesota and other states have been discriminated against, targeted by hate groups, and surveilled by the FBI because of their Islamic faith. The executive orders signed by President Donald Trump in February of 2017 banned new immigration from Somalia, among other countries.

TRENDS IN THE 2000s

The history of immigration in Minnesota shows the state’s strong ties in attracting immigrants and refugees from around the world. These movements have remade both Minnesota and what it means to be “Minnesotan.” The immigrant makeup of Minnesota has diversified over time. Between the 1980s and the 2010s, Minnesota—alongside the rest of the United States—has experienced an exponential increase in immigration. New US Census figures show that Minnesota’s minority population has increased faster than its population as a whole. In the 2010s, most of Minnesota's immigrants come from Somalia, Mexico, China, India, Laos, and Myanmar. The number of African immigrants in the state grew by 620 percent in the 1990s, and the number of immigrants from Latin America increased by 577 percent. Between 2000 and 2010, Latinx people accounted for 60.7 percent of the population growth in the Midwest and 27.8 percent of the population growth in Minnesota. Refugees from Southeast Asia continue to transform small towns like Worthington and Jackson. Karen and Somali workers have reinvigorated local workforces and enriched their culture.

As of 2018, Minnesota has the largest Hmong population in a US metropolitan area and the largest Somali population outside of Somalia. Its immigrant and refugee communities represent a remarkable diversity, reflected in the fact that more than 230 languages are spoken in the homes of Minnesota’s students. According to US Census data, Minnesota has the highest number of refugees per capita nationwide (13 percent and 2 percent, respectively).

The demographics of Minnesota have been evolving since its designation as a state, and much earlier. What has remained constant is the state’s vital role in settling and supporting immigrants and refugees from across the globe.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Alanen, Arnold Robert. Finns in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012.

Gjerde, Jon. Norwegians in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010.

Drenning Holmquist, June. They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State’s Ethnic Groups. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1981.

Lewis, Anne Gillespie. Swedes in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004.

Roethke, Leigh. Latino Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2009.

Valdés, Dennis Nodín. Mexicans in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2005.

Vang, Chia Youyee. Hmong in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2008.

Yusuf, Ahmed Ismail. Somalis in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2012

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Ilhan Omar
Ilhan Omar

Overview

The Ojibwe and Dakota people who have made this land their home for centuries were displaced and driven out by an influx of European immigrants throughout the nineteenth century.

“Immigrant” and “refugee” are not equivalent terms. Immigrants choose to leave their countries to seek new opportunities; refugees are compelled by dangers at home—like war and violence—to relocate to a safer place.

Finnish immigrants played a crucial role in serving as springboards for successive waves of immigrants to Minnesota.

Chain migration is a social process by which immigrants follow others from their ethnic group to a particular settlement location.

The state programs, mutual assistant associations, and community-based organizations created to assist Southeast Asian refugees in the 1970s helped resettle newer refugee groups in the 1990s and 2000s.

Over 276,000 Latinx people of diverse backgrounds live in Minnesota, with the vast majority being of Mexican descent.

Like Finns in the late nineteenth century, Somali immigrants to Minnesota since the 1990s have struggled to learn English while maintaining their first language and culture.

In the late nineteenth century, more than a third of Minnesota’s population was foreign-born. In 2018, only 10 percent are foreign-born.

Minnesota is a leader in welcoming and resettling refugees from across the globe. It has the highest number of refugees per capita nationwide.

Chronology

1851

The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux makes available thousands of acres of land in Minnesota Territory to settler-colonists.

1862

The Homestead Act opens up millions of acres to any adult settler-colonist who has never taken up arms against the US government.

1867

The Minnesota Board of Immigration is established to encourage immigration to the state.

1882

Congress passes the Chinese Exclusion Act, which bans Chinese laborers from immigrating to the US. It is the first immigration law targeting a specific ethnic group.

1896

Minnesota issues election instructions in nine languages: English, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, French, Czech, Italian, and Polish.

1924

The Immigration Act limits the number of immigrants allowed into the United States through a national origins quota.

1942

Executive Order 9066 authorizes the Secretary of War to prescribe certain areas as military zones, clearing the way for the incarceration of Japanese Americans in American concentration camps.

1942

The United States signs the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement with Mexico, leading to the series of laws and diplomatic agreements known as the Bracero Program.

1948

The Displaced Persons Act provides assistance and aid to victims of Nazi persecution and those fleeing their home countries after World War II.

1965

The Hart-Cellar Act and amendments to the Immigration Act and the Nationality Act abolish the nationality-origin quota system.

1975

The Indochinese Migration and Refugee Assistance Act (and the 1976 amendments that follow) allows Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees to enter the US. It also establishes the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Program (IRAP).

1980

Using United Nations definitions, the Refugee Act establishes policies for refugees and creates the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

2002

Mee Moua becomes the first Hmong American to serve in the Minnesota State Legislature.

2017

Executive Order 13769, widely known as the Muslim Ban, restricts admission to the United States from Muslim-majority countries.

2018

Ilhan Omar becomes the first Somali American to serve in the US House of Representatives.