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Good Question: How Many MN Workers Are Undocumented?

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(credit: CBS) Jason DeRusha
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By Jason DeRusha, WCCO-TV

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Chipotle Mexican Grill fired 450 employees in Minnesota after a federal immigration raid. Chipotle disclosed the number in a filing last week with the Securities and Exchange Commission. So, if one company can have that many undocumented employees, how many undocumented workers are there in Minnesota?

“Well, there are estimates,” said Katherine Fennelly, a professor at the Humphrey School for Public Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Fennelly researches the economic impact of immigrants in Minnesota and points out how difficult it is to get good data on the number of undocumented workers.

“The estimates are that right now about 85,000 individuals who may be undocumented in Minnesota,” she said, “and that’s down maybe 23 percent from the estimate in 2007.”

Not all those who are here illegally are working, of course, but U.S. Census research indicates that most of those who are undocumented come to the U.S. to work. Most of them end up in the work force.

“People say, ‘Why don’t they get in line?’ But if you’re someone with low levels of education, there’s no line to get into,” said Fennelly.

In Minnesota, undocumented workers tend to work in hospitality (restaurants and hotels), food processing (turkey and meat packing plants) and horticulture, she said.

“The Immigrations and Customs Service issues very, very few visas to low-skilled workers on an employment basis,” she said. “We’re not issuing the visas for the workers we need.”

Most employment visas go to highly-skilled workers, even though the demand for low-skilled workers is one that is apparently not being met by U.S.-born workers.

If what happened at Chipotle happened to the tens of thousands of undocumented Minnesota workers, Fennelly said, “I think it would be an extraordinary hit to our economy when the economy is fragile as it is.”

Undocumented workers do pay sales and excise taxes on goods, alcohol and gasoline. Also, while our U.S.-born population grows older and gets more educated, the number of low-skilled jobs is on the rise.

“We have fewer workers who are of an age they can take the jobs we’re talking about. Some of these jobs take a lot of physical endurance,” she said.

Some question the estimate of 85,000 undocumented workers.

The Wilder Foundation Research noted that Minnesota has a lower percentage of Latino immigrants compared to other states (30 percent in Minnesota compared to nearly 50 percent national average), which could have a severe impact on the number of undocumented workers in the state.

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