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During his campaign visit to Mankato on Monday, President Donald J. Trump spared no opportunity to criticize Minnesota’s refugee population. Repeating sentiments he’s expressed throughout his term, Trump depicted immigrants as a drain on public services, a strain on city budgets and a burden on schools.
“Many of them hated our country and they didn’t come in on merit,” Trump said of the refugees that have been living in the United States. “All they do is complain.”
But at least one family in Mankato would say otherwise.
Nasra “Jamila” Ibrahim just opened her own restaurant, J’s Sambusas, three weeks ago. Jamila came to the United States in 1994 as a refugee from Somalia. In Mogadishu, she worked at her brother’s restaurant and she’d dreamed of opening her own eatery. Now, the first-time business owner has hired two employees at J’s Sambusas, in Mankato, and she’s looking to hire more.
Jamila hears Trump and his supporters talk about how refugees are simply “getting” from the government. But, Jamila said, “they’re giving, too.”
“I came as a refugee to the United States, but that doesn’t mean that I’m a burden,” Jamila said. “I’m a member of the community. I opened a business. I’m hiring. I’m paying taxes. I’m working; I don’t get welfare.”
Throughout his campaign, President Trump has disparaged immigrants and refugees. And in office, he’s taken executive actions against them and their families. He rarely quotes the people who would seem to have the greatest interest and expertise in these issues: that is, immigrants themselves.
Had Trump called on Mankato’s immigrant residents, they likely would have informed him that his comments don’t match what they’re seeing in their own communities. Data show Minnesota’s immigrant residents aren’t a burden on the state; instead, they’re actively participating in boosting the economy as entrepreneurs, taxpayers and consumers.
Jamila and her husband, Harbi Hassan, have two sons in their early 20s, and they’ve lived in Mankato since 2006. Jamila and Harbi also work for the Mankato School district as cultural liaisons, where they serve as a bridge between the school administration and its Somali students.
Harbi was the first person from his family to come to the United States. Like Jamila back in Mogadishu, Harbi also worked in a restaurant, flipping burgers, when he first arrived.
“The notion that we are just takers, I don’t know where that comes from,” Harbi said. “This country has been built by immigrants.”
Trump spoke to a crowd of about 150 people at the Mankato Airport. In an hour-long speech, Trump asserted that if Joe Biden were elected president, he “would overwhelm Minnesota with refugees from terror hot spots, depleting public services, burdening schools and straining city budgets.”
Map The Impact, an initiative out of a bipartisan research and advocacy organization, uses data to map the economic contributions of immigrants across the country. According to Map The Impact, the first congressional district, which includes Mankato, is home to some 42,000 immigrant residents, who pay $372.5 million in taxes as of 2017. This population also exerts $1 billion in spending power and counts nearly 1,000 entrepreneurs—a group Jamila has just recently joined.
The foreign-born labor force also expanded by 51.2 percent from 2007 to 2018, compared to a growth of 1.9 percent for the native-born workforce, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment Economic Development.
In addition to downplaying the contributions immigrants make to Minnesota, the president touted his administration’s record in dramatically reducing refugee resettlement.
In Minnesota, refugee arrivals have fallen by two-thirds in recent years, according to a Minnesota Reformer analysis of state data. The people who do make it through multiple interviews and security reviews had to receive additional screening if they came from the 11 countries under Trump’s travel ban.
Trump on refugees: ‘Many of them hated our country’
“We’ve shifted refugee admissions away from terror-afflicted nations like Syria and Somalia,” Trump told the small crowd in Mankato, a line that received applause. Trump then added that the refugees who’ve come to the country lacked merit and resented their privilege.
Harbi, by contrast, said that one of his proudest accomplishments was coming to a country that accepts refugees. That pride translated into a love for the United States, he said.
“Our kids were born here, they went to school here, they went to university here,” Harbi said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Abdi Sabrie, a Mankato school board member, wasn’t surprised to hear Trump’s criticisms. A father of seven, he’s also assembled a fairly long record of civic involvement: He became the first Somali elected to the Mankato school board, co-founded an Islamic school, and serves as an advisor at South Central College Abdi said immigrants in Mankato are not just self-reliant, but community-minded.
“Immigrants, more than they take, they sustain the economy,” Abdi said.
In Mankato alone, Sabrie said, Somalis run some 20–30 businesses.
When he heard Trump say that all refugees do is complain, Abdi chuckled and responded, “We don’t have time. We’re busy being productive and pursuing our dreams and aspirations for ourselves and our families.”
The refugee services program at the Minnesota Council of Churches helps refugees and asylees obtain jobs, find housing and get enrolled in school. In an average year, they serve about 225 families. Some are new arrivals, while others have been living in the state for up to five years.
Habiba Rashid, the program’s associate director in Mankato, said the local economy has grown as a result of its increasing refugee population. She’s seen clients move into newly built apartment buildings, and she’s seen clients open up businesses. Perhaps most important, Habiba has seen clients as frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Refugees have gone through trauma. They know what it’s like to be hungry,” Habiba said. “When they come to the United States, they make the best of it.”
Habiba added that a lot of her clients work to get off of the county assistance they’re eligible to receive. Cash assistance often puts limitations on how much a recipient can receive in an income elsewhere. Her clients prefer to live and work autonomously.
“They’re getting on their feet really quickly so they don’t have to depend on that,” Habiba said. Besides, she added, most of her clients have family members back home that depend on them and their remittance payments. Cash assistance just isn’t going to cut it.
“We continue to celebrate our diversity here in Mankato,” Habiba said. “Mankato has become a home to many. This is a place where they feel comfortable investing.”
Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.