Many new Americans from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America are joining the American Indians, Europeans and African Americans before them in calling Minnesota “home.” According to U.S. Census 2000, 8.5 percent of Minnesotans speak a language other than English at home; 5.3 percent of Minnesotans were born outside of the United States—an increase of 130 percent since 1990. This boosts Minnesota to 12th state in the nation in the rate of immigrant population growth, ahead of California, Florida and Texas.
In 2005, an additional 5,000 Hmong immigrants arrived, following a U.S. State Department decision to reunite 5,000 Hmong refugees from Wat Tham Krabok refugee camp in Thailand with their families here in the U.S. More than 60,000 Hmong currently live in Minnesota.
These demographic trends bring enormous opportunity and major challenges. New Americans strengthen our economy through their workforce participation, enrich our arts and cultural community and contribute to civic life. Seeking opportunity and freedom, they work hard to improve their lives and those of their children, much like the new Americans in the early 20th century at the peak of immigration to our state.
However, the transition to ”feeling at home” is often a long, difficult process marked by progress as well as setbacks. Added to the stresses of social adjustment is the erosion of traditional social norms and family systems and for some immigrants, depression and anxiety associated with family separation, civil strife or politically motivated torture.
The health of all Minnesotans, including our newest neighbors, is a product of many interrelated factors. There is growing recognition that social, economic and environmental factors such as culture, the environment, education, income and housing often play a significant and decisive role in health status. For all immigrant groups, the extent of integration they achieve with the broader community as well as the degree of connectedness they maintain among themselves are key factors in their overall health and quality of life.
Grantmakers Concerned for Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) defines immigrant integration as a “two-way, multi-generation process of mutual adaptation and accommodation that weaves together newcomers and the larger community to strengthen the social, economic, cultural and civic fabric.” Put another way, “it is the process through which, over time, newcomers and hosts form an integral whole” (Migration Policy Institute). This “bridging” process is a shared responsibility between the immigrant and the community at large and can be facilitated by many factors such as social norms, attitudes, laws and policies.
Research has found that healthier individuals and communities have stronger social support systems and social networks that bond people together. Within immigrant communities, this “bonding” behavior may draw on structures as formal as mutual assistance associations or as informal as intergenerational ties. Social connectedness is especially important to the mental health and healthy adjustment of new Americans.