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MPR poll: Minnesotans think immigrants cost more than they contribute
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The first of the new wave of Hmong refugees from Thailand began arriving in Minnesota in June. (MPR Photo/Toni Randolph)
Immigrants face a variety of challenges trying to assimilate in a new land. In Minnesota, that would include convincing many of their new neighbors that they are capable of contributing to the community.

St. Paul, Minn. — About 325,000 immigrants live in Minnesota -- about seven percent of the population. And officials in the state demographer's office say that number is only expected to grow. About 5,000 new Hmong immigrants, alone, are expected in the state by the end of the year. But 42 percent of respondents to a Minnesota Public Radio-Pioneer Press poll say the economic and social contributions immigrants make don't add up to the cost of absorbing them into society.

Tom Thomas, 50, of St. Paul is among the 625 registered voters surveyed. The computer support technician says the money spent on immigrants would go further helping people who are already here struggling to find better jobs.

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Image Shelly Haagenson

"There's a big difference between working a job you have to and working a job you enjoy going to. I feel that some of these opportunities given immigrants far outweigh our own citizens," he said. "I'll tell you it's painful to hear the corrosive attitudes that I think exist about immigrants," says Jorge Saavedra is the chief legal officer for Centro Legal, which provides legal services for Hispanics -- the largest immigrant group in Minnesota.

He says he's disappointed by the poll results. "I certainly have some concern that some of these attitudes have some basis in racism or bias. I'm dismayed at the fact that we fail to look at immigrants in our communities as opportunities, but instead view them as liabilities," he said.

Some people do view immigrants as a plus. Thirty-seven percent of those polled say the economic, social and other contributions of immigrants outweigh the cost of absorbing them. And Saavedra cites a study four years ago by the Hispanic research group, HACER, that estimated that undocumented immigrants alone pumped between $1.6 to nearly $4 billion into the state's economy.

The MPR poll did not distinguish between types of immigrants -- legal or undocumented; those here for work, school, as refugees, seeking political asylum, family reunification or any of the other categories that describe immigrants.

The poll did ask whether immigrants hurt the economy by taking jobs away from people who already live here. Thirty-seven percent said they did. But 49 percent said immigration helps the economy by providing labor for jobs that otherwise go unfilled.

Shelly Haagenson, 49, of Minneapolis, a mother of five, says she sees many immigrants in service jobs -- jobs that young people, like her teen-age daughter and young college graduates don't want.

I find that people are often surprised to learn that we have equal percentages of immigrants who are in very high education than the average US born resident.
- Kathy Fennelly

"For them it's a first step in improving their lives form where they came from. And they seem to be hard workers at those positions. So I, it seems they're filling a need that my own children aren't interested in filling," she said. Kathy Fennelly, a public affairs professor at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, says the overall picture of immigrants is distorted.

"I find that people are often surprised to learn that we have equal percentages of immigrants who are in very high education, high skill categories, much higher actually, three times higher than the average US born resident. and we also have groups of immigrants who have low levels of education, less than 9 years, also higher than the number of US born residents," she said.

Fennelly says the costs may be high when people are new to the country, but that isn't the complete picture. She says immigrants are responsible for the new businesses cropping up in urban areas and also in places like south central Minnesota. And she says there are intangible contributions -- such as the diversity of ideas and cultures that can't necessarily be measures in dollars and cents.

The MPR-Pioneer Press poll was conducted from September 11 to the 14. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.

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