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Immigration policies under former President Donald Trump slashed the number of people entering Minnesota from other countries as the state was grappling with a workforce shortage due in part to an aging population.

If Trump wins his one-term-delayed re-election in November, a promised crackdown on both documented and undocumented immigration — including barring refugees, carrying out mass deportations and limiting birthright citizenship — would likely hit an even tighter job market and send shock waves through the state's economy.

Minnesota's unemployment rate is lower than the U.S. as a whole, and employers are struggling to fill nearly 200,000 open jobs. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Minnesota's labor shortage is among the country's more severe, with just 51 workers for every 100 open jobs.

"People don't understand sometimes that there is no other option for growing the workforce other than international immigration or a change in domestic migration patterns, which for 20 years have not worked in the favor of Minnesota," said State Demographer Susan Brower. "We'd have to see, really, a very drastic change both in domestic migration patterns but also in the level of international immigration to even begin to scratch the surface of meeting the current labor force needs that we have."

Minnesota is home to about 480,000 foreign-born residents, comprising about 8.5% of the population, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Those residents tend to be younger than Minnesota's native-born population, and most are in their prime working years, filling jobs from agriculture to education to health care. Between 2011 and 2021, immigrants comprised half the state's labor force growth, though they made up less than 11% of the workforce.

Nationally, foreign-born workers reached a record 18.1% of the civilian labor force in 2022 after a steep decline at the height of the pandemic in 2020. The Congressional Budget Office in February cited immigration trends as it revised its labor force projections upward, and Fed Chair Jerome Powell — a Trump appointee — has credited the immigration rebound of recent years with bolstering the post-pandemic economy.

A Trump campaign spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. In interviews with the New York Times, Trump advisers recently described plans for wide-reaching immigration restrictions, many of which would target people living and working in the U.S. legally.

Those plans include: suspending the U.S. refugee program and barring visitors from certain countries; revoking temporary protected status allowing people from specific countries deemed unsafe to live and work in the U.S.; kicking out people, including Afghans evacuated from their country in 2021 who have been allowed to live in the U.S. for humanitarian reasons; and attempting to end birthright citizenship for children born in the U.S. to undocumented parents.

Mass, militarized deportations of undocumented immigrants without due process hearings — modeled on an Eisenhower administration program named with a derogatory ethnic slur — are also part of the plan. The Migration Policy Institute estimates 81,000 undocumented immigrants live in Minnesota, including 53,000 civilian workers age 16 or older.

"Mass deportation will be a labor-market disruption celebrated by American workers, who will now be offered higher wages with better benefits to fill these jobs," Trump adviser Stephen Miller told the New York Times. "Americans will also celebrate the fact that our nation's laws are now being applied equally, and that one select group is no longer magically exempt."

Patience Kettor left, and DéShanea Ford, employees at Aurora on France senior living, help a memory care resident arrange flowers Wednesday in Edina.
Patience Kettor left, and DéShanea Ford, employees at Aurora on France senior living, help a memory care resident arrange flowers Wednesday in Edina.

Jerry Holt

State efforts unsuccessful

Minnesota saw international migration plummet starting in about 2017, Brower said, falling to about 5,000 new arrivals on net annually compared to about 15,000 a year in the earlier part of the decade. Trump administration policies lowering the cap on refugee resettlement and slowing visa processing contributed to the decline, she said.

"What we saw when Trump was president was that they were able to slow down and stop multiple streams of immigration to the United States in a way that had significant impacts on our community," said Micaela Schuneman, senior director of immigration and refugee services at the International Institute of Minnesota, which expects to resettle 670 refugees this year. "And so that is something, of course, that we are looking at as possible or likely to happen again."

During the Trump presidency, which began in January 2017, sanctuary cities and states — which decline to cooperate with federal immigration authorities — served as a safeguard against federal immigration policies, said Jackie Vimo, senior policy analyst at the National Immigrant Law Center. Minneapolis and St. Paul are sanctuary cities, but efforts to adopt a statewide policy have been unsuccessful.

Legislators referred the North Star Act to House and Senate committees in February, but it hasn't progressed further this session. Cosponsor and immigration attorney Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton, emphasized the bill would only restrict local collaboration and data-sharing on civil immigration enforcement, not criminal cases.

"The North Star Act is both about having humane policies in place so that people who live and work and have families in the state of Minnesota can fully participate in our communities and fully contribute to our economy, and then it's also very much about the economic future of our state," Feist said, noting expected declines in Minnesota's workforce and birthrates. "We know that immigrants who come here play a really critical role in our economy and our workforce."

In response to the North Star Act, Rep. Jordan Rasmusson, R-Fergus Falls, brought a bill barring Minnesota cities from passing blanket sanctuary ordinances. That bill never received a hearing.

"There's recognition that we have a federal failure when it comes to securing our border," Rasmusson said. "When we have millions of illegal immigrants coming into the country, we're starting to see the costs and impacts on the state of Minnesota."

Farmland needs

The region of western Minnesota that Rasmusson represents is rich with farmland running to the North Dakota border. Many agriculture employers rely upon immigrant workforces in rural Minnesota to tend to livestock or process animals.

Furthermore, hundreds of Minnesota farms hire guest workers through the H-2A visa program. A legal group tracking H-2A violations estimates thousands of these workers are in Minnesota. In June, hundreds of H-2B workers employed at the HyLife plant in Windom, Minn., lost their jobs when the plant closed.

Rasmusson said he supports "legal immigration" avenues for farmland employers.

"Different agricultural organizations, companies and family farms in my area utilize legal immigration programs that the federal government has for temporary workers coming in," he said.

Jose Hernandez, 59, has lived in Minnesota for two years, employed under a work permit at a JBS Foods pork-processing facility in Worthington. A doctor in his native Cuba and later in Mexico, he left both countries for political reasons and is seeking political asylum here.

Hernandez wants to stay in Minnesota and work in medicine again — "I like the lifestyle in Minnesota, and there are more opportunities," he said in Spanish — but is wary of how immigration policy changes could make it harder for his family to join him.

"Of course it worries me," he said.

On Capitol Hill, employers have long sought to increase the caps on the H-2A workforce, hiring more foreign workers to do jobs in America's farmland. From turkey farms to milking parlors on dairy farms, immigrants often keep the farm economy running.

"We've pushed on the [U.S.] Department of Labor for many administrations in a row to try to get them to change their own interpretation of the rules on the book," said Paul Bleiberg, executive vice president of government relations for the National Milk Producers Federation, a Washington D.C. lobby for the dairy producers and cooperatives.

The federation, Bleiberg said, has supported permanent legal status for current farm workers and families. They've also sought to modify the H-2A program, which is currently not open to dairy farm workers since milking cows is not seasonal work like harvesting.

But he noted any bill even remotely adjacent to immigration law raises hackles in D.C. Often the legislation is lost in political debates about the border.

"We pretty much end up supporting almost every starting legislation, even if it's an imperfect vehicle," Bleiberg said.

Dé Shanea Ford, (center right) an employee at Aurora on France senior living, helps memory care residents during a Skyview Memory Bells Choir class Wednesday in Edina.
Dé Shanea Ford, (center right) an employee at Aurora on France senior living, helps memory care residents during a Skyview Memory Bells Choir class Wednesday in Edina.

Jerry Holt

Health care shortage

Also reliant on foreign-born workers: Health care.

A top Minnesota industry, health care for decades has navigated a staffing shortage by hiring foreign-born workers, said Dr. Taj Mustapha, Fairview Health Services' chief equity strategy officer. Those workforce needs are becoming more acute as the sector experiences a wave of baby boomer retirements and simultaneously braces for that generation's care needs.

According to the Minnesota Hospital Association, the state's hospitals and health systems have nearly 10,000 open positions, a 253% increase since 2019.

Minnesota's senior care sector has 17,000 open positions, representing about 20% of its workforce, said Jon Lundberg, president of Fairview Senior Services and Ebenezer Senior Living. At Ebenezer, a Fairview subsidiary, about 20% to 25% of the workforce is foreign-born, from nurses to food service employees, he said.

"Anything that happens that creates more barriers or establishes quotas or whatever different kinds of things that may impact the ability of competent, qualified health care workers from being able to effectively immigrate to the United States could certainly exacerbate staffing challenges that we currently experience and/or likely will experience going forward," Lundberg said.

In addition to filling jobs, Mustapha said, foreign-born health care workers bring an outside perspective that has been shown to improve patient outcomes.

"We have a pretty diverse population in Minnesota, and when you have a workforce that brings diversity as well, you are actually more likely to have culturally appropriate conversations with your patients," she said. "And the amazing thing is that when you look at interventions that improve culturally competent care for patients, the single best intervention is actually a diverse workforce."