The flow of immigrants to Minnesota is quietly reaching record highs amid signs of what could prove to be a profound and lasting shift in their continents of origin.
For the first time ever, African nations are supplying more than half the state's legal immigrants. Four countries from that continent now stand atop the list.
Arrivals are doubling and quadrupling from countries such as Kenya and Liberia even as numbers are tapering off, for a variety of reasons, from past immigrant taproots such as India, Thailand and Russia, federal data show.
Africans say they are attracted here for the same reasons as others -- quality of life, good schools for their kids -- with the additional twist of Minnesota's reputation in parts of that continent as being receptive to immigrants with funny accents.
"Minnesota holds a very prominent place in the minds of Liberians," said Ahmed Sirleaf, of Advocates for Human Rights, a worldwide nonprofit based in Minneapolis. "I've heard people there say that Minnesota is one of the very few states where an immigrant with an accent can be hired to work in his chosen profession. In other places, most people have to stay in odd jobs.
"I don't think this movement is going to slow down or stop at some point."
At a time of severe job losses, the rise in the sheer number of immigrants, combined with their increasing likelihood of being black and Muslim, creates the conditions for a backlash.
But demographers are warning that Minnesotans should be grateful for anyone who chooses to plant stakes in the frozen north these days, at a time when Minnesota's population growth has slowed and dozens of its counties are slowly emptying.
The arrivals won't put a huge dent in the state's mostly European-origin demographics any time soon: We're still talking about 18,000 total immigrants counted last year in a state of 5.26 million. But the federal government only closely tracks a portion of the total flow, and the trend shows no signs of slowing down.
"My grandfather was a Methodist minister in Liberia," he said. Now Gaye is plotting a new start-up church in Brooklyn Center, to be called Mosaic.
"If it were not for missionaries from places like Minnesota, I wouldn't be a Christian today. So the seed has truly come full circle." Why Minnesota?
"I had friends here, and a cousin. It was based on that. That's how a lot of people do it."
Indeed, says Barbara Ronningen, a veteran analyst of immigration numbers for the Minnesota State Demographic Center. She sees no major changes or world events that have influenced the rise in African numbers. Rather, she says, it's much like the surge in Hmong immigrants in the '80s and '90s: "Once you have a certain number here, they just keep coming. And that's what we're seeing."
Then, infrastructure develops: Stores, translators, newspapers, churches. A single church becomes 10 and 20 and 30. A happy newcomer here spreads the word there and pretty soon a cousin pops up here, a brother there, a nephew somewhere else, and the network continues.
"No one is sitting in Africa suddenly thinking, 'I'm going to Minnesota,'" said James Sanigular, 51, of Shoreview, a Liberian immigrant who arrived as a child and now writes insurance policies for Aflac, with offices in Crystal and Burnsville. "That just isn't going to happen. It happens through personal connections.
"I've got a nephew in Brooklyn Park, a brother in Minneapolis, a sister in Brooklyn Center, a sister in New York. A nephew's brother -- four years ago -- is the most recent to arrive."
The odd thing about the new African numbers is that they are kind of like the old ones.
That is, for years African immigrant leaders claimed that huge numbers of their countrymen were here. Demographers shook their heads, saying none of the usual indicators (languages spoken in schools, for instance) supported those claims. Already by the turn of this century, Somalis alone were claiming to be 50,000 strong -- several times as high as independent estimates at the time.
But the gap between claims and reality is narrowing fast. The Department of Homeland Security's new-admission numbers for 2009 suggest a slowly rising tide, with 9,579 of last year's grand total of 18,020 legal immigrants coming from Africa.
The only year with more total immigrant flow, Ronningen said, was 2006. But that was a time when -- amid massive news coverage -- thousands of Southeast Asians were arriving as part of the clear-out of a major refugee camp in Thailand.
"So that year was an anomaly," Ronningen said. "Without that one event, numbers have gradually been rising for some time."
There was little pushback to immigration in the '90s, when Minnesota had one of the nation's lowest unemployment rates. Today the economy is far worse. But Minnesota's growth has dramatically slowed since that decade of explosive population increases. More native-born Americans have been bailing out of this state than arriving for most of the past decade.
Of the state's 87 counties, 25 are demographically dying, losing more people through death than they're gaining through birth. All but one of those are losing more people through move-outs than they're gaining from move-ins. For almost all, immigration is their only claim to demographic health so far this decade.
Statewide, the Department of Education's figures show, Minnesota's primary and secondary schools over the past 10 years are down by more than 70,000 students from households in which English is the primary language.
That has only partially been offset by an increase of 23,000 students from Spanish-speaking households, an 8,700-student increase in Somali-speaking households, and smaller numbers from other African nations speaking languages such as Swahili and Oromo. Still other Africans are masked by coming from former British or French colonies such as Liberia or the Ivory Coast.
"This is not a place anyone comes to hang out," demographics consultant Hazel Reinhardt told an audience of homebuilders in Roseville a few days ago. "No one comes here to bask in the snow. We either must attract whites the way we did in the '70s and '80s -- or attract a large number of minorities."
David Peterson • 952-882-9023