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Without influx of immigrants, Twin Ports would have lost residents in recent years

Chinese natives Dan “Tanya” Xu (left) and Vicky Cao, co-owners of Osaka Hibachi & Steak House and Cloud 9 Bistro in Duluth, talk about their adopted community at Cloud 9 on Wednesday. (Steve Kuchera /

A growing number of foreign-born people are calling the Northland home these days. And were it not for an influx of immigrants, the Duluth-Superior metropolitan area would have seen its population erode between 2000 and 2010.

Our story of immigration driving population growth is far from unique, according to a recently released study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

An analysis of 71 metro areas in the Midwest showed that if not for increasing numbers of foreign-born people settling in and around these cities, they would have grown by only 3.3 percent from the first decade of this century, instead of the 5 percent population gain they collectively achieved, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Duluth’s population growth of less than half a percent during the same period was much more modest. The number of people living in our metro area — which includes St. Louis, Douglas and Carlton counties — rose by just 929 people between 2000 and 2010. But without the 991 immigrants who took up residency in the Duluth-Superior area during the decade, our population would have shrunk by 62 people.

All told, however, 200,477 people resided in and around the Twin Ports as of 2010 — up slightly from 199,548 a decade earlier.

Foreign-born residents still make up only a sliver of the area’s population pie. The Duluth-Superior metro area was home to a total of 4,966 immigrants as of 2010, and they accounted for just 2.5 percent of the total population. In terms of immigrant diversity, that puts the area in the bottom fifth of the 71 Midwestern metro areas included in the study.

Yet, the Twin Ports area saw nearly a 25 percent jump in the number of immigrants living here between 2000 and 2010.

Sense of place Arshia Khan and her family helped boost Duluth’s immigrant count during the study period. She moved to the city with her husband and two children in 2001 to take a job as a software engineer at Saturn Systems. She now has three children and works at the College of St. Scholastica’s School of Business and Technology as an associate professor and chairwoman of undergraduate programs.

Khan cited Duluth’s natural beauty as one of the key features that holds her in the city.

“I just love the lake. I haven’t seen a more beautiful town,” she said.

After emigrating from India, Khan lived in New York City and Pittsburgh before settling in Duluth. She enjoyed the greater diversity of living in a large city, yet she chose Duluth.

“In those cities, you don’t stick out like a sore thumb, but it’s not as beautiful,” she said.

Khan said most of the fellow immigrants she knows in Duluth come for jobs in the fields of academia, medicine or technology. Many of them stay for a while but eventually move on to pursue other opportunities elsewhere.

She said she believes the city could do a better job of retaining talented professionals from abroad. While Khan said many Duluthians have welcomed her family, she has also encountered occasional challenges.

“I think the attitude of Duluth has to change a bit. People need to become more accepting,” Khan said.

Immigration: Past and future? Duluth Mayor Don Ness noted that Duluth boasted a strong contingent of first-generation immigrants as recently as the 1930s.

“As Duluth was booming, we had a very strong, vibrant population of immigrants. But that hasn’t been our experience in recent decades, primarily because of a downturn in our economy,” he said.

Ness said that as Duluth’s economy begins to pick up steam again, he expects to see more people from abroad coming to fill jobs. He noted that hard-working, talented people from all over will be needed to meet the demands of the future.

“There’s no question that it is important for Duluth to be able to attract both immigrants and other workers who meet the needs of our employers,” he said. “We need to do a better job of welcoming and retaining these valuable workers so they will come to consider Duluth their home.”

In her coursework, Marcia Runnberg, an assistant professor of social work at the College of St. Scholastica, said she has attempted to build awareness of the challenges facing immigrants in the community and heighten sensitivity to their needs.

“To begin to build a welcoming community for immigrants, we need to be more intentional about creating opportunities for people to interact with one another and share their cultures through things like food and music,” Runnberg said. “I think that would go a long way toward making people feel more a part of our community.”

A food path Runnberg said that many immigrants choose to start their own businesses, rather than accept menial jobs working for others, and ethnic restaurants have offered a common path for newly arrived entrepreneurs.

Chinese restaurateur Dan “Tanya” Xu, 35, had operated a successful restaurant in Milwaukee before deciding to sell it and open Osaka Hibachi & Steak House in Duluth four years ago with her business partner, Vicky Cao, also a native of southern China.

“We were visiting friends here, and we saw you don’t have a hibachi restaurant. We thought you needed one,” she said.

This summer, the pair opened a second restaurant, Cloud 9 Bistro in Canal Park.

Cao said a small but growing community of Chinese families is emerging in the area.

“When we first came here, there was only one Chinese family we knew. But now we know more than 10 families,” she said, explaining that she felt more at home as a result of those friendships.

Xu and Cao said they have drawn on a tight network of family members and friends to build their business without any conventional bank financing.

Ness said Duluth often has been slow to attract similar immigrant investments.

“There’s certainly value in having a strong immigrant population present in a city,” he said. “Immigrants often bring with them a strong sense of entrepreneurship, positive energy and vitality that we see present in other cities. But unfortunately we haven’t seen as much of that in Duluth.”

Comfort in community Rowena Ramsey, 35, said it took a couple years before she began to feel that she fit into Duluth, after moving to the city from the Philippines to marry her husband, Eric, 13 years ago. She was introduced to him by her aunt, who worked at St. Luke’s Hospital, where Ramsey now works as well.

“There were not a lot of Filipinos in Duluth when I arrived here, but now I probably know 50-60,” Ramsey said. These days, the local Filipino community gets together each year for a Christmas party, and she periodically helps to coordinate orders of familiar foods from markets in the Twin Cities and Chicago.

Ramsey works to service patients’ rooms at present, and she’s attending classes in hopes of becoming a registered nurse.

Every two weeks, Ramsey said she sends money and boxes of clothing and other supplies to her three brothers and their families in the Philippines.

“It’s part of our culture to support our family members,” Ramsey said.

Earlier this summer, she was joined in Duluth by another family member.

“I encouraged my niece to move here if she wanted a chance to have a better life,” Ramsey said.

Renamarie Guinita, 21, followed Ramsey’s advice and moved to Duluth, where she was married a couple of weeks ago, beginning her own immigration adventure.

Khan voiced her hopes that more people in and around Duluth will extend a welcoming hand to newcomers.

“Somehow, people need to be reminded that everyone here is an immigrant except for Native Americans,” she said. “That’s the beauty of America. It’s a land of immigrants.”