ST. PAUL (May 12, 2014) — Lyndon Johnson, our 36th President, was both cheered and jeered for many of his policies and actions during his presidency in the 1960s.
Notwithstanding the contentious times and rancor raised by Johnson (also known as LBJ), there can be little doubt about his role in securing passage of two landmark pieces of legislation at the time, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voters Rights Act of 1965.
These two laws formed part of a larger program of social reforms known as the Great Society that addressed many long-ignored social ills in our nation: inequality, poverty, urban decline, environmental degradation, substandard education, and senior access to healthcare, to name just a few. (For those of us old enough to remember, it’s hard not to be wistful about the times when Congress could actually get things done!)
Equally significant was a piece of legislation known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, signed by LBJ at the foot of the Statue of Liberty on Oct. 3, 1965, with little fanfare but with wide-reaching implications. Observing that “the land flourished because it was fed from so many sources–because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples,” LBJ proclaimed that no more would our nation be ruled by the harsh inequities of a national origins quota system; a system allowing just three countries to supply upwards of 70 percent of all the immigrants while disfavoring those from “southern or eastern Europe or from one of the developing continents.”
And, here we are today in a new era with its own set of problems and demands for reform. In poll after poll, a clear majority favors comprehensive immigration reform to remedy the dysfunction and injustices built into a system that simply doesn’t work anymore. Yet, we have a Congress that refuses to act, apparently more intent on obstruction, knowing and doing nothing, and focused on getting reelected rather than doing the people’s business. The pushback we hear from some members of Congress is that immigrants are a burden on the system and contribute nothing to our society or economy.
Not long ago, the Washington, D.C.-based American Immigration Council (AIC) released some intriguing facts about immigrants’ contributions to our nation on a state-by-state basis. A review of the Minnesota data provides some unique insights and raises serious doubts about claims that immigrants are a burden. Consider, for example, that the foreign-born population of our state has risen from 2.6 percent in 1990 to 7.3 percent in 2011, amounting to a 2011 population of 388,839 foreign-born Minnesota residents. The Asian portion of Minnesota’s population increased from 1.8 percent to 4.0 percent (216,270 people), while the Latino segment correspondingly rose from 1.2 percent to 4.8 percent (257,186 people), both during the same time period.
The 2012 purchasing power of these two populations was noteworthy, with $8.4 billion held by Minnesota’s Asian population, representing an increase of 994 percent since 1990, and $5.4 billion by the state’s Latino population, a 965 percent increase.
The AIC further notes that from 2006 to 2010, 15,001 new immigrants became business owners in Minnesota. In 2010 alone, these new immigrant business owners generated a net business income of $772 million, forming approximately 5.1 percent of total net business income for the entire state of Minnesota.
A number of prominent Minnesota-based companies have at least one founder who was an immigrant or child of an immigrant; for example, Mosaic, Medtronic, Alliant TechSystems, and Life Time Fitness. These four companies alone employ roughly 90,000 people with over $33 billion in annual revenue. Other companies include Rani Engineering, GCI Systems (now part of GSS Infotech), and Tempo Creative Consultants.
But, it’s not just large companies. Across the state, one finds immigrant, family-based businesses contributing to such local communities as Austin, Albert Lea, Crookston, Faribault-Northfield, Moorhead, Rochester, Worthington, Willmar, and smaller towns lying nearby. In Willmar, for example, immigrants own bakeries, clothing and retail stores, tea shops and restaurants, grocery stores, auto body shops and provide a variety of professional services.
It’s the same story in the Twin Cities metro area. The corridors along University Avenue in Saint Paul and Lake Street in Minneapolis have been revived and transformed by immigrant business owners. St. Paul’s Hmongtown Marketplace along Como Avenue, the Hmong Village on Johnson Parkway, and the Midtown Global Market along Lake Street in Minneapolis are examples of areas invigorated by immigrant-owned businesses.
Beyond the economics of immigration, the simple fact is that the presence of immigrants infuses our communities with energy, offering new ideas, perspectives, and values. It opens us to new possibilities and approaches to problems. Immigrants bring the global community closer, providing us context and perspective on events taking place around the world.
By the same token, immigrants are giving the same about life in the U.S. to their friends and families in their countries of origin, leading to more dialogue and hopefully diminished possibilities for violent conflict. And, that’s a good thing.
Almost 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that eliminated the national origins quota system and opened the United States to immigrants from all lands rather than a select few. That action furthered the promise of America by contributing to the great American experiment, and as President Barack Obama has so insightfully observed, “What makes someone American isn’t just blood or birth but allegiance to our founding principles and faith in the idea that anyone – from anywhere – can write the next chapter of our story.”
R. Mark Frey is a St. Paul, Minnesota attorney who has practiced immigration law exclusively for more than 25 years with an emphasis on political asylum, family and marriage-based immigration, naturalization, removal defense, appeals, H-1B visas, and religious workers. For more immigration policy-related statistics, please go to the American Immigration Council’s website located at www.immigrationpolicy.org and refer to the “immigration by state” topic. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Korean Quarterly.