Minnesota Immigrants: Immigrant Experiences

Discrimination and Prejudice

Although immigrants to Minnesota often believed America was the land of opportunity where they had a chance for a better life, they were not always welcomed here. They have had to deal with restrictive immigration laws, anti-immigrant sentiments, housing discrimination, racism, bullying, and stereotypical attitudes.

Nativism and Quotas

Ever since immigration started, Americans have struggled with the idea of who can come in and who cannot. With the intense growth of immigration in the late 19th century, some people began to worry about the kinds of immigrants who were coming. They wanted to protect the interests of native-born Americans or established immigrants in the face of all these new people. Lawmakers began to create immigration policies and laws to promote nativism, including the quota system.

The Immigration Act of 1924 created a national origins quota, which limited the number of immigrants who could come to America based on the county they came from. It was based on the national origins of people already in the United States to preserve the current ethnic makeup of the country. In effect, it prioritized people from northern European countries like Scandinavia and Germany, over those from eastern and southern Europe. It also excluded Asians.

Like many Chinese immigrants, Joe Huie lived and worked here in Minnesota while his family remained home in China. After traveling back and forth for several decades, he finally established a home and business with his eldest sons in Duluth in the 1950s.

His wife and youngest children were not able to join him in Duluth until 1954, after U.S. immigration laws loosened and it was safe for his family to come.

Interview with Joe Huie, 1979


Discrimination Against "Enemy" Immigrants

During times of war, immigrant groups who came from the land of the enemy - particularly Germans and Japanese - experienced both official discrimination as well as wartime hysteria from their neighbors. During World War I, by law, people born in Germany had to register as "alien enemies of the United States." Their jobs, home addresses, and family members were tracked in order to make sure they were not German spies.

Alien Enemies of United States Must Register under Authority of President, Stillwater, Minnesota
Registration of German Alien Enemies, General Rules and Regulations

31-year-old Gust Pussel, who arrived in the United States from Germany in 1910, filled out this "Alien Enemy" registration form in 1918. His parents and brother were still living in Germany, and his brother had even joined the war effort back home in the German army. Mr. Pussel held a good job, was married, had registered for the U.S. draft, and also applied for naturalization, but he was still under suspicion because of his family background. The form included his fingerprints and even recorded a change of address to keep track of him.

He was a relatively recent, and young, immigrant subject to these registrations, but many German immigrants who had been in MN for decades—like 61-year-old Carl Wagner—also had to register.

Registration Affidavit of Alien Enemy Gust Pussel, Stillwater, Minnesota
Registration Affidavit of Alien Enemy Gust Pussel, Stillwater, Minnesota
Registration Affidavit of Alien Enemy Gust Pussel, Stillwater, Minnesota

Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans were also considered suspicious during World War II. Families were force to leave their homes and businesses along the West Coast and relocate to concentration camps. This mistrust of the Japanese was also common in Minnesota, although not as many Japanese people lived in the state.

Filipino Paul C. Borge worked for the Great Northern Railway during World War II. He was hired to replace Japanese employees in service jobs due to anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II.

Q: When they were recruiting these Filipinos, was this because so many people had been taken into the army that used to do that work?
A: No, they were recruiting Filipinos because they wanted to get rid of all the Japanese.

– Paul C. Borge

Interview with Paul C. Borge, 1978

Despite widespread anti-Japanese feelings, some Japanese-American people were welcomed in Minnesota at this time. Students came to Minnesota colleges and universities to continue their studies, like Masake Miyake and Grayce Kaneda pictured below. Other second-generation Japanese-Americans came to Fort Snelling in St. Paul for military language training so they could serve as interpreters and intelligence workers during the war.


Stereotypes and Racism

Immigrants in general have experienced varying levels of discrimination due to stereotypes and racism over the years. Often, these stereotypes were based on the color of the immigrants' skin, their lower-class status, or the fact that they were clearly in the minority.

Although some immigrants who have been here for decades have seen changes for the better in terms of housing discrimination, bullying, and other forms of community racism, there is still a need for more understanding between different people and cultures.

When Indian-born chemical engineer Jagadish Desai tried renting a house in Minneapolis in 1962, he was not welcome. He told how one potential landlord would not rent to any person of dark color as an example of the way things were at the time. Even purchasing a house with his white wife was difficult in the 1960s.

Interview with Jagadish Desai, 2003

Crecencia Rangel described an incident in school where other children mocked her daughter and the other Mexicans and said they could only work in the beet fields. They did not care about the Mexicans, she said, because they were in the minority.

They said, "What do you know? You are like the animals that work in the soil. What civilization do you have? What business do you have in school?" And my daughter Juanita would defend us. This is how they treated us.

– Crecencia Rangel

Interview with Crecencia Rangel, 1975

Born in China in 1947, Kei-Leung Albert Lun came to the United States when he was seventeen years old to go to college. He began working for IBM in Rochester in the 1970s. At the time, he and his wife were some of very few Asians in the area, and even though he was educated and working in IT, he experienced anti-Asian prejudice. These experiences inspired him to become involved in Rochester's Diversity Council to help the community address these types of issues.

Interview with Kei-Leung Albert Lun, 2012

Aparna Ramaswamy recalled how she was teased for being Indian in elementary school. They teased her because they didn't understand where she was from, and all they could see was that she was different from them.

Q: What aspect of being Indian did they tease?
A: It was just being Indian. The word being Indian. There were a couple of boys who would run around and pretend they had feathers in their hair and doing "woo-woo-woo," that kind of thing, to just be completely ignorant and not understanding where I was from just because I was different.

– Aparna Ramaswamy

Interview with Aparna Ramaswamy, 1997

Francisco Morales also experienced issues with diversity and racism as a Latino immigrant. He also noticed that the newer Somali immigrants were now facing similar struggles as the Latino immigrants did a generation before.

We’re just getting accustomed to dealing with different cultures around here. First it was Hispanics, and then after the Hispanics it was the people from Venezuela, and then after that the people from Honduras, now the people from Somalia. They’re welcome. But yes, we have to deal with their culture, their customs, and their language.

– Francisco Morales

Interview with Francisco Morales, 2010

Maryan Del discussed how the local police treated the Somali youth she knows. She started working with the police to help them understand these kids better, so they won't harass each other or live in conflict.

I think we have a problem with the police. That’s my thing. It’s not a gang. The Somali youths, they all stand in one place. They look like they’re fighting or doing something, but that’s Somali culture. You’re loud. You’re talking with fingers. You know you move your hands. A lot of times, police might be thinking this is a bunch of gangs trying to kill each other, but that’s not the point. It’s just kids who are hanging out, talking loud. I think a lot of times, they harass our kids, and we don’t want them to do that.

– Maryan Del

Interview with Maryan Del, 2004


Learn more about how Minnesota's immigrants sought citizenship and became Americans, using the page link below. Plus, get more information about this exhibit using those page links.