Minnesota’s Rising Gang Violence – How our Refugee Program is not Helping

Mitchell Rolling

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Gang activity in the United States has been increasing steadily since 2004, and Minnesota has followed in this trend. 

According to the 2015 FBI National Gang Report, gangs remain highly active and “continue to grow in numbers and expand in their criminal activities.” These activities include human sex trafficking, prostitution, and building relationships with “Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations (MTCOs)” and “extremist groups.” 

The report identified 96 gang jurisdictions in America that built connections with extremist organizations, which adds up to 26% of jurisdictions and 44% in prison gangs. The relationship is a mutual benefit for both groups; extremists use the gang to spread their doctrine, and gangs use extremists to bolster membership.

The report notes that “Gangs also refer to extremist ideology to respond to perceived injustices and to enact social change.” 

Gangs are also attempting to join the military, police force, and the judiciary. They are increasingly using social media to recruit prospects, communicate, and target rivals. The most popular sites include Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. 

Where does Minnesota fit into all of this?

Gangs in Minnesota have been on the rise, too, as violent crimes have been increasing simultaneously according to a Star Tribune article in 2016. The article claimed that violent crime has been up due to “gang-on-gang bloodshed sweeping parts of the city (Minneapolis).” When looking at the available data for 2017, the numbers are getting worse. Every violent crime category has risen since 2016 through July.

Hennepin County has one of the largest gang populations in the country, and as CBS noted after the 2015 Crime Report came out, it was also found that Minneapolis ranked among the 25 most dangerous cities in America. The next year, they ranked 23rd. Chicago ranked 24th. 

So, what is the cause of this rise? Unemployment is often seen as a factor in rising gang membership, but Minnesota has a better unemployment rate than the national average. However, when looking at a specific group on the rise in Minnesota, and especially in Hennepin County – Somalis – we see a different picture. 

Somali refugees started coming into the United States in the 1990’s due to a civil war in and around Somalia. Their number one destination: Minnesota. And as long as the refugee process places groups where relatives are likely to be, Minnesota can expect more to come. 

But similar to other refugees coming from war-torn countries – like those from El Salvador and Burmese who also struggle with the American economy and learning English – Somali refugees continue to have trouble adapting to Western society. Somalis in America are battling unemployment rates of around 20%. This is far worse than the national average, and like other struggling refugee groups, some in the Somali community have turned to gang activity in response. 

In 2009, a CBS story detailed the growing Somali gang problem, where gang expert Jorja Leap in California said, “When there’s unemployment and poverty and lack of external support, there’s gangs.”

A study done in Maine regarding the state’s Somali community found that, “Only six percent of the Somali immigrants received training and services from the CareerCenters. While the exact reasons are unknown, it is likely that language and cultural barriers contributed to the low participation rate.” In 2011, a TwinCities.com article noted that “as young Somalis entered the school system with little or no formal education or English skills, established gangs targeted the newcomers because they were different.” This led some of the youth in the Somali community to create some of their own.

Jeanine Brudenell, who has focused on Somali gangs beginning in the 2000s, said that Somali gangs have had a presence in Minneapolis since 2000.

Other ethnic groups who arrived through our nation’s refugee program are exhibiting similar trends. The most notorious being Salvadoran and the gang MS-13. Salvadoran refugees have the lowest English-proficiency rates of any Hispanic group in America, with 71.7% of Salvadorans in America reporting to speak English less than “very well” in 2010. According to a Pew research report in 2013, only 3% are English-dominant.

The trend is simple: allowing refugees – who are usually poor and uneducated, which is why they have sought America’s help – into our country without providing them the skills to succeed leads to more crime, usually in the form of gang activity. 

Gang activity doesn’t have to be turf wars or narcotic sales, but any type of criminal activity perpetrated by a group of individuals. 

In 2012, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek spoke to Congress “about the specific emergence of Somali gang-related issues we are having in my county.” There he noted that “Somali gangs are unique in that they are not necessarily based on the narcotics trade as are other traditional gangs… Somali gang criminal activities are not based on a certain geographical area or turf. Gang members will often congregate in certain areas but commit their criminal acts elsewhere.” 

Somali gangs’ main crimes: credit card fraud, cell phone and gun store burglaries, witness intimidation, supporting terrorism, and sex-trafficking. 

The problem lies in our refugee admission process. According to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), “The USRAP has no requirements in terms of educational background, English language, or other education in order to consider an applicant for refugee admission to the U.S. The program focuses on providing durable solutions to the most vulnerable refugees. Once admitted to the U.S., the USRAP requires that refugee children attend school and the program strongly encourages refugees to learn English.”

If our nation wants to continue letting in refugees from war-torn countries, which we should continue to do, a debate is needed on what to include in our refugee admissions process. The process as it stands now obviously leads ethnic groups who are struggling the most in American culture to simply create ghettos for themselves, increasing not only gang activity but the amount of welfare given to these groups. If the intention of our admissions program is to provide “durable solutions to the most vulnerable refugees,” then tackling the English-proficiency should be the number one goal.

English-proficiency is a key factor to succeeding in America, and maybe we should include in our refugee process something that does more than “encourages refugees to learn English.” Maybe we should make it mandatory.