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Meme Misleads on Minnesota’s Somali Refugees

Quick Take

Facebook posts distort the number of Somali refugees who have resettled in Minnesota to advance an unsupported claim about a freshman congresswoman’s electoral victory.

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Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar’s family fled from her native Somalia and sought refuge in Kenya before resettling in the U.S., according to the biography on her campaign website. They settled in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1997.

Over two decades later, Omar clinched her seat representing Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, making history as the first Somali American, as well as one of the first two Muslim women, to serve in Congress.

Now, a popular meme on social media uses erroneous information to try to tie her victory to an unfounded claim that former President Barack Obama’s refugee policies were part of a “planned” effort to get her elected.

“Obama resettled 70,000 SOMALIAN REFUGEES in MINNESOTA,” the meme reads. “No wonder ILHAN OMAR was elected. IT WAS PLANNED.”

That number is wrong. In fact, it’s larger than the total number of Somali refugees resettled throughout the entire U.S. under Obama.

From the day Obama took office — Jan. 20, 2009 — to the last full day of his presidency — Jan. 19, 2017 — there were 54,514 Somali refugees that arrived in the U.S., according to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center. Of those, 6,320 went to Minnesota.

Moreover, the Minnesota Department of Health reports that between 1979 and 2017, there were a total of 23,915 refugees who arrived in Minnesota from Somalia.

Some refugees who resettle in one state may move to another; Minnesota received a reported 3,740 “secondary arrivals” from other states between 2010 to 2016. And Minnesota’s Health Department notes that “there is no systematic way to identify all secondary refugees migrating to Minnesota,” so that number doesn’t account for movements not reported to the state.

The exact size of the Somali population in Minnesota is hard to pin down. U.S. Census Bureau data provide some insight: The 2013-2017 American Community Survey five-year estimate shows 52,333 people in Minnesota who cited full or partial Somali ancestry. The Census Bureau’s one-year estimate for 2017, however, pegs that figure higher — at an estimated 69,479 people (though the one-year estimate has a higher margin of error than the five-year estimate).

The Census website also does provide some information by congressional district. We know that the 5th District has 58,225 residents of Subsaharan African ancestry, according to the 2017 one-year estimate, but there’s no breakdown provided on how many are from Somalia.

Either way, both the Somali population estimates for the entire state — and the Subsaharan African population in the 5th District — are all still well below the 267,703 total votes Omar received in her district when she was elected in November with about 78 percent of the vote.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that refugees become eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship — a prerequisite for voting — only after they have lived in the country for five years.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on the social media network.


Cumulative Arrivals, 1979-2017.” Refugee Health Program, Minnesota Department of Health. October 2018.

The Economic Status of Minnesotans 2018.” Minnesota State Demographic Center, Department of Administration. Accessed 18 Feb 2019.

Meet Ilhan.” IlhanOmar.com. Accessed 18 Feb 2019.

My Congressional District.” U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates. Accessed 19 Feb 2019. 

The Reception and Placement Program.” U.S. Department of State. Accessed 18 Feb 2019.

Refugee Arrivals From January 20, 2009 through January 19, 2017 | Nationality of Somalia.” Refugee Processing Center, U.S. Department of State. Accessed 18 Feb 2019.

Refugee Health Statistics.” Minnesota Department of Health. Oct 2018.

Results for U.S. Representative District 5 | MN Election Results.” Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State. 12 Nov 2018.

People Reporting Single Ancestry in Minnesota. U.S. Census Bureau, 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates. Accessed 19 Feb 2019.

Population Movements | Somali | Refugee Health Profiles.” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 19 Nov 2018.

U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.” U.S. Department of State. Accessed 18 Feb 2019.

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A meme claims President "Obama resettled 70,000 SOMALIAN REFUGEES in MINNESOTA" to help elect Rep. Ilhan Omar.
Sunday, February 17, 2019