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South Dakota’s Changing Neighborhood: Accurate Facts and Figures

Accurate Facts and Figures About Immigration and Religious Minorities in South Dakota

Introduction: A Long History of Immigrants

South Dakota has always had foreign born, new Americans. In fact, there are far fewer foreign-born immigrant South Dakotans today than there were 100 years ago. In 1910 there were 100,790 foreign-born people living in South Dakota. In 2010 there were 22,238.[1] We often don’t think about this much older wave of immigration, because after more than a century, the descendants of the German, Norwegian, Swedish, and Dutch immigrants to SD from the 19th century have completely assimilated into American life and are seen as the “real” Americans.

The largest segment of South Dakotans today – more than 40% of us – are of German ancestry.[2] So it may be notable to hear what Ben Franklin had to say about German immigration to what was, in 1751, a mostly English, Dutch, and Scottish colony. He complained, “Few of their children in the country learn English… The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages … Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”[3]

He’s talking about us – the “real” South Dakotans. Straight up. So when we discuss worries about immigrants that are different from us coming to America, changing America, and changing our culture and government let’s remember that these are not new fears.

A History of Struggling with Immigration

Americans have often struggled with immigration numbers. After World War I anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly against immigrants who were more “other” was especially high, and Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924 which limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas for up to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia.[4]

This policy, which was designed to maintain the majority white ethnic and racial balance of the United States, and keep down numbers of Eastern Europeans and Jews, in addition to banning Asians, was reversed in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, passed at the height of the civil rights era. This law was first championed by Greek, Portuguese, Polish and Italian Americans, who claimed that the explicitly racist law of the past discriminated against them, and kept them from bringing family members to join with those already here.[5]

The 1965 law, which opened the doors to immigration from around the world, had a focus on bringing skilled immigrants. But since a desire for family reunification from existing American voters drove the law, family reunification became the central tenet of the new immigration policy.[6] The influx of refugees and of millions of illegal immigrants over the last several decades has certainly contributed to the United States’ profound demographic transformation. But the chief driver of this change remains the system of family-based immigration put in place in 1965.[7] And as we know, this legal influx of immigrants from all over the world has changed the face of America, and the face of South Dakota.

Reliable Facts About Immigration to SD

Immigrants today make up 2.9% of our state’s population, and roughly one-third of them are naturalized U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote.[8]

As a percentage of our state’s population, immigrants have almost tripled since 1990.[9] Over three quarters of the new immigrants in SD (an estimated 18,000 out of over 23,000 in 2013) are here legally.[10]

The percentage of Latino residents, both immigrant and native born, has also increased in South Dakota over the past 25 years – dramatically. Latinos have quadrupled their representation in our state from .8% in 1990 to 3.2% in 2013.[11] Almost 96% of Latino children in South Dakota (and over 90% of the children of all immigrants in South Dakota) were born here and are citizens.[12] So when we speak about immigrants, we may want to remember that even when we speak about the people who entered illegally (or entered legally and overstayed their visas) that we are often talking about the parents and grandparents of US citizens.

Facts About Refugees in South Dakota

Many of those people come for the same reasons our ancestors did – for a better life, to improve their security and to access greater economic and educational opportunities. Some immigrants are also explicitly fleeing war, violence, and oppression. We refer to this group as refugees. According to international law, refugees are “individuals who have fled from their country of nationality or habitual residence, having a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social or political group, and owing to such fear are unable or unwilling to return to that country.” [13]

Of the approximately 1 million immigrants granted permanent residency in the US each year, about 1 in 10 are refugees.[14] We take in refugees because we’ve pledged to the world in international law that we will do so. The United States and over 150 other countries adopted the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees after World War II when millions of people were displaced in Europe.[15] This convention was extended worldwide in 1967.[16] The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) coordinates these worldwide efforts.[17] UNHCR has priorities for resettlement that include survivors of violence or torture, families seeking to reunify, refugees with medical needs, and women and children at risk.”[18]

The United States population as whole generally hasn’t been excited about taking in refugees since we started explicitly doing so after World War II. In 1958, a majority of Americans opposed letting in more refugees from Hungary when the Soviet Union cracked down; in 1979 a substantial majority disapproved of letting in more Vietnamese refugees who supported the US during the Vietnam war; in 1980, majorities of Americans disapproved of Cuban refugees resettling.[19] One concern that often motivates anti-refugee feeling is that opponents of US policy, who might be violent or dangerous, will slip into the US with “real” refugees.

Refugees go through a specific, and more rigorous process than anyone else seeking entry into the United States. They are identified by UNHCR, and then usually placed in UNHCR refugee camps (there are some exceptions to this). According to the American Foreign Service Association, a group made up of current and former US foreign service workers and diplomats – that is, people who have worked directly in refugee resettlement – “Once individuals are identified as eligible for resettlement they all go through the intensive screening process conducted by the UNHCR, international voluntary agencies and, for those considered for entry into the United States, representatives of the State Department, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. This involves collecting biographical data, medical clearances and intensive security screening.” The process for refugee resettlement can take an individual up to ten years, and the vetting itself can take eighteen to twenty-one months.

There has been a great deal of discussion in the United States about whether or not the process of vetting refugees is secure. If you have more questions, Lutheran Social Services’ website has more information about the process of vetting refugees for resettlement in the United States.

Many people assume the federal government resettles refugees across the US. But as many of you know, in SD, it is Lutheran Social Services (LSS) that coordinates resettlement along with state and local authorities. The state sets the number of refugees it will accept, and LSS coordinates their placement and support. LSS is one of nine voluntary associations, many of them religiously-based, that work in cooperation with the federal government along with state and local communities to handle the logistics of refugee resettlement.[20]

Here’s another instance where facts are really important. During the 2017 legislative session, Senate Concurrent Resolution 7 was introduced in committee. It used stock language, probably from a group that opposes Muslim refugees. The resolution claimed in part that “the federal government and private social organizations are resettling thousands of Syrian refugees throughout South Dakota;”[21]

Luckily, the resolution died in committee, in part because of incredible work on behalf of LSS, which gave state legislators the factual number of Syrian refugees resettled in SD last year. Want to guess how many were actually resettled in SD up until the spring of 2017? FOUR.[22] Four refugees from Syria now live in SD. In fact the ENTIRE number of refugees resettled in SD last year was 395 individuals within Sioux Falls and 44 in Huron.[23] Between 2002 and 2015 just under 6000 refugees were resettled in South Dakota, with the largest numbers by far from Burma & Somalia, with large numbers from Eritrea, Sudan, Iraq and the Republic of Congo also represented.[24]

Reliable Facts and Figures About Muslim South Dakotans

One of the biggest fears today about refugees is that many are from countries with large Muslim populations. And while that historically hasn’t been the case, recently the US has admitted more refugees because of the wars in Syria and Iraq. Last year Muslims made “up almost half (46%) of the nearly 85,000 refugees who entered the country…”[25]

Muslims have been present in small numbers in South Dakota for more than 100 years, but their number increased substantially after WW II when Lutheran Social Services began settling refugees in Sioux Falls. While we don’t have exact numbers, our best estimates are that there are 3,000-4,000 Muslims in Sioux Falls, most of them refugees who fled civil wars in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Burma and Bosnia.[26] Leaders at the Muslim Community Center of SD also estimate around 4,000 Muslims in the state.[27]

We know that in this highly politicized climate there is a great deal of information floating around about Muslim immigrants, and that much of it is not accurate. You can reach out to the Muslim Community Center of SD if you would like someone to speak to your congregation about the community in Sioux Falls.

Other Religious and Ethnic Minorities: Jews, LGBT Folks & Native Americans

South Dakota is also home to a small Jewish community (around 340 self-reported members of Jewish congregations in 2010)[28]; and one of the smallest reported percentages of openly LGBT citizens of any state at 4.4%.[29] That said, numbers of openly gay and lesbian couples grew by more than 50% between the 2000 and 2010 census counts.[30]

And finally, though this documents focuses primarily on immigrants, refugee, and Muslim neighbors, because we know that the public discourse in our country has grown particularly virulent at times in stereotyping and scapegoating these groups, we also want to spend at least some time noting facts about the longest-standing communities of South Dakotans, ones which remain vulnerable to racism, stereotyping, and a lack of ally-ship from our white majority: Native Americans. In 1900, Native Americans made up just 5% of South Dakota’s population[31], reflecting the devastation of white settlement of the plains and the resulting displacement, violence and disease. But by 1980 that had risen to 6.5% of the overall population[32].


The populations of our state and country continue to change, just as they always have. From fears of the German, Irish and Italians to new concerns about Arabs and Muslim refugees, the United States has often grappled with what it means to welcome immigrants who are new and different, and for majority and minority communities to live peacefully and in ally-ship together. We hope that these facts and figures give us a baseline for discussions in your congregation and community, and that you will join us at SD Faith in Public Life in trying your best to love all your neighbors, without exceptions.

[1] Federation of American Immigration Reform, an organization dedicated to ending illegal immigration, with numbers taking from the US Census Bureau. viewed on April 23, 2017. [2] – source is the American Community Survey of the US Census Bureau. Viewed on April 23, 2017. [3], viewed on April 23, 2017. [4] US State Department: viewed on April 23, 2017. [5] “The 1965 Immigration Law Changed the Face of America,” May 9, 2006, viewed on April 23, 2017. [6] Ibid. [7] Ibid. [8] viewed on April 23, 2017 [9] Ibid. [10] Ibid. [11] Ibid. [12] Ibid. [13], viewed on April 23, 2017. [14] Pew Center for Research: viewed on April 23, 2017. [15], viewed on April 23, 2017. [16] Ibid. [17] Ibid. [18] Ibid. [19] The Pew Research Center:, viewed on April 23, 2017. [20] Ibid. [21] [22] The Omaha World Herald: [23], Fact sheet on refugee resettlement in the U.S. and in South Dakota. [24] Omaha World Herald, ibid. [25] Pew Research Center, ibid. [26] 3,000 estimate is from Jamie Tarabay, Muslim Community on the Rise in South Dakota, National Public Radio, June 22, 2008. (accessed Nov. 13, 2014). 4,000 estimate is from Bassel Salem, Interview by Marcia Moret Sietstra, Sioux Falls, SD, Oct. 4, 2011. [27] Estimate is from Dr. Mohammad Qamar, MD, Interview by Cari Sietstra, Sioux Falls, SD, April 21, 2017. [28] American Association of Religion Archives, ibid. [29] Gallup poll: [30] Rapid City Journal [31] (1900-1980) [32] Ibid.


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