Nan Wu, the deputy director of quantitative research at New American Economy, worked with the city officials like Jonathan Weinhagen (right), the president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber, to conduct research on immigrants and refugees in Minneapolis. Credit: New American Economy and Minneapolis Regional Chamber

Immigrants and refugees accounted for almost 6 percent of population growth in Minneapolis between 2014 and 2019, according to a new research report. And with that growth came more consumers boosting the economy, as well as more employees in key industries. 

The city of Minneapolis commissioned the study to highlight economic contributions from immigrants and refugees. Researchers and community partners hope the study will help inform local government officials on how to best serve those communities. The Minneapolis Regional Chamber and Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs partnered with New American Economy to create the report. 

New American Economy is a research agency based in New York that conducts similar research at the national, state, county, and district levels. Gateways for Growth, an initiative which provides research support and technical assistance to improve inclusion in the city, connected New American Economy with local agencies across the country to conduct city-level research.

“When we contacted community partners, they have a lot of need to understand their local immigrant population in depth. There has been a lack of such data,” said Nan Wu, the deputy director of quantitative research at New American Economy. “We can really fill the gap in terms of helping different cities to really get a better understanding about the makeup of their immigrant population.”

According to Wu, researchers used data from the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau to create their own analysis. Researchers produced estimates for different variables like employment, income, even health insurance status. They then took those estimates to local partners to get feedback. The Minneapolis Regional Chamber was one of those partners.

“It highlights the critical role that our immigrant and refugee communities play in our economy—from spending power to the workforce. There’s never been a more important time to highlight that,” said Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber. 

The regional chamber and New American Economy also connected with Michelle Rivero, the director of the city’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.

“We have been reaching out to stakeholders in the communities to start talking about what residents would like to see in terms of inclusion initiatives that can be implemented at the municipal level and beyond,” Rivero said. 

The nine-page report is meant to be simple enough for anyone to understand—whether you’re a policymaker or not. But we’ve broken down some of the main takeaways here.

Immigrants and refugees have strong spending power

In 2019, immigrants and refugees in Minneapolis held $1.2 billion in spending power, which is about 11 percent of the spending power of the entire area. That means that immigrants and refugees as consumers are supporting local businesses and its workers, while also paying taxes that go to the city.

“Any time you have an aggregate group of people that control more than 10 percent of the spending economy, it really highlights the magnitude of the population,” Weinhagen said.

Wu explained why the spending power of immigrants and refugees is as significant as it is large. 

“We see immigrant refugee consumers who go to local businesses to buy food and groceries. All those dollars trickle into local economies to support local businesses and workers,” Wu said. “When you have a strong consumer base including immigrant and refugee households, it will make it easier for businesses hardest hit by COVID to bounce back.”

On the business side, immigrants represent 13.2 percent of entrepreneurs in Minneapolis while making up 14.9 percent of the population. Those 2,700 immigrants working for their own businesses generated $37.6 million in business income in 2019.

Immigrants and refugees meet the city’s workforce demands

Weinhagen hopes this research will help policymakers effectively allocate resources during post-pandemic economic recovery. Understanding immigrants and refugees in the workforce is critical for that, as they represent almost 16 percent of the city’s employed labor force.

Construction, transportation and warehousing, as well as healthcare and social assistance were some of the key industries in which immigrants make up more than 20 percent of the workforce. New American Economy also estimates that immigrants and refugees in Minneapolis helped create or preserve 2,900 manufacturing jobs that would have otherwise moved or vanished.

Almost 12,000 immigrants were essential workers in healthcare, food services, and other essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These industries that are disproportionately populated by immigrants and refugees are some of the very same industries that require even more workers,” Weinhagen said. “That alignment can be a really smart strategy to deploy resources.”

Anisa Hajimumin is the assistant commissioner for immigrant and refugee affairs at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). She’s already thinking about ways DEED can utilize New American Economy’s report.

She noted that immigrants also make up a large portion of highly skilled employees, but are having trouble finding jobs that fit their qualifications. 

“The work we’re doing has to do with bringing the employers and these talents to the same table so they work together,” Anisa said, “so that our immigrant and refugee communities are employed in their fields, and not just for low-paying positions.”

Anisa is hoping that this research will bridge a gap between employers looking for high-skilled workers, and the immigrants and refugees she works with. 

“Rather than wondering and waiting, here at DEED we’re already working on creating the strategies necessary that will be inclusive for our immigrant and refugee talents,” Anisa said. “If they succeed, our state succeeds.”

According to the New American Economy report, the numbers show that in some industries, this bridging is already under way. Immigrants and refugees are helping the city meet rising labor demands in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by making up about 13 percent of STEM jobs.

Despite significant economic contributions, immigrants and refugees still face barriers

While their economic contributions are critical, Rivero added that the report also highlights more contextual information about immigrants that is just as important when developing policies: languages, nationalities, and immigration status. Community partners have notably expressed a need for better language access, Rivero said.

According to Wu, the research shows that the city of Minneapolis could do a better job of addressing language barriers. The top languages spoken at home other than English are Spanish, Somali and other East African languages, and Hmong.

Almost 28 percent of the city’s immigrant population, more than 17,000 people, have limited language proficiency.

“They need more support in terms of language access, through translation services or making the information available in multiple languages,” Wu said. “That can be really beneficial for them to access more information, and connect to more services provided by the city and other organizations.”

Rivero is sending the report out to stakeholders like community leaders and policymakers so that they can come up with ways to bridge that gap. She is also hoping the data will inform ordinances currently being developed by the city. For example, Rivero suggested that data about renters could influence how housing policies are shaped, and that the city could use the data to make sure it’s including immigrants and refugees when educating residents about new ordinances.

New American Economy is currently updating similar research for the top 100 metros areas in the country through their Map The Impact project, which tracks similar data at the national, state, county, and district levels. According to Wu, the agency expects to release the new data later this week.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.