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New stats and a new plan for Grand Forks' new Americans

Grand Forks City Hall (Herald photo/Sam Easter)

Grand Forks leaders have new, revealing statistics about local immigration—and by the end of the year, they'll have a plan for the community to go with it.

That new data is an early step toward a "Welcoming City" plan, spearheaded by city staff and Grand Forks' Immigrant Integration Initiative and due out by September. City leaders and volunteers are pursuing the plan after winning a technical grant from two nationwide, immigrant-focused groups earlier this fall. That means that, although city staff will spend time compiling the report, no public cash is expected to be spent, with the groups behind the grant providing the help to make it happen.

"We're looking both at how we can better help new Americans that come to our community," said Robin David, a leader of the Immigrant Integration Initiative, "(and) very much so, how do we help our community be able to benefit from what they have to offer?"

David said that means the report could have recommendations about how to better invite new Americans into the workforce, into churches and into "civic engagement." The report will include data from multiple focus groups conducted this year, she said, and its release will coincide with local and national events recognizing new Americans.

Presented to the City Council on Monday, the data show that about 8,800 foreign-born residents lived in Grand Forks and nearby counties in 2015—about 3.5 percent of the total population. That group made significant contributions to the local economy and were more likely than average to be of working age and employed.

Those numbers come from a 16-county region surrounding Grand Forks, listing size, demographic breakdown and economic contributions. Most immigrants are from Canada—a full 15 percent—though Mexico, the Philippines, Iraq and China round out the top five countries of origin. About 11 percent of the immigrant population in 2015 were refugees—immigrants who came fleeing violence, the report states—and mostly from Bhutan, Somalia, Iraq, Liberia and Burundi.

Local Immigrants contributed $20 million to Social Security and $5 million to Medicare in 2015, the report states, and made up nearly 7 percent of the local health care industry, 6 percent the education field and nearly 5 percent of the manufacturing workforce.

Immigrants in the region also tended to be more highly educated than U.S.-born residents, though some data in the report appeared to indicate that they may be less likely to become entrepreneurs.

"I'm interested in hearing follow-up information as to why that is," City Council President Dana Sande said. "I want to see lots of people, it doesn't matter who you are—I want to see people starting businesses."

The data and the coming report process are all the more important in a community that has seen intense debate on immigration and even violence. The Somali-owned Juba Coffee House was firebombed in 2015, and state leaders have discussed passing a bill that would allow pausing refugee resettlement in North Dakota, with some questioning the strain such arrivals place on local economies, health care systems and schools.

That discussion has since become a study of the refugee resettlement process in North Dakota. Rep. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo and chairwoman of the House interim Human Services Committee, said lawmakers expected to deliver a report in November.

David said that the data discussed in Grand Forks helps respond to that debate—one that questions the value of new American arrivals.

"To be able to see what new Americans have to bring to our economy and the vibrancy of our communities is critical," she said. "Numbers can only do part of that, but it's a start. And our goal is to keep telling the story."

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

(701) 780-1108