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Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., in the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 5, 2019. (AP) Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., in the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 5, 2019. (AP)

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., in the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 5, 2019. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson March 5, 2019

Meme wrong about Somali-Americans in Ilhan Omar's district

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., hasn’t been in Congress long, but she has already inspired controversy among both Republicans and Democrats.

Omar, who took her seat two months ago, is one of two newly elected Muslim women in Congress, and her comments about Israel have drawn official and unofficial rebukes.

In one case, she tweeted that support for Israel in Congress is "all about the Benjamins." A Republican motion to condemn anti-Semitism, widely seen as a rebuke of her comment, passed the House, 424-0, and she apologized.

A few weeks later, however, Omar said at a public event, "I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country." This led the House Democratic leadership to pursue another vote denouncing anti-Semitism.

Amid the controversy, Omar has become a target for conservatives on social media.

One image read, "Obama settled 43,000 Somalian refugees in Minnesota. As of 2016, there were around 80,000. No wonder Ilhan Omar was elected. It was planned."

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The Minneapolis area is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, hub for Somali-Americans in the country, and many of them came as refugees. Omar herself came to the United States as a refugee in 1995.

However, the post is wrong on multiple levels.

Did Obama settle 43,000 Somali refugees in Minnesota?

For refugee resettlement figures on Obama’s watch, we turned to an interactive website from the Refugee Processing Center that provides data going back to 2002.

As it turns out, 6,320 refugees from Somalia were resettled in Minnesota between 2009 and 2017, when Obama served as president. That’s about one-seventh of the amount claimed in the meme.

That’s fewer than the number settled in Minnesota during the final seven years of the George W. Bush presidency. From 2002 to 2008, the government resettled 9,858 Somalis in Minnesota.

During the Obama years, 54,514 Somali refugees were resettled nationally, meaning that Minnesota accounted for about 11.5 percent of the national total.

During the Bush years, the national total was 46,439, making Minnesota’s share higher under Bush than it was under Obama, at 21.2 percent.

Are there ‘around 80,000’ refugees in Minnesota?

There aren’t even 80,000 Somalis living in Minnesota -- much less 80,000 Somali refugees living there, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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The bureau’s five-year estimate found between 42,400 and 55,200 Somalis living in Minnesota, in 13,000 to 16,500 households.

"Numbers vary, largely because of census undercounts and secondary migration that might not document people properly," said Stefanie Chambers, a Trinity College political scientist who has studied the Somali-American community in the United States.

Did Omar win because of Somali-American votes?

Omar won the Democratic nomination with 65,237 votes, which was 24,081 votes ahead of her closest competitor. (In such a strongly Democratic district, the Republican nominee ended up losing to Omar, 78 percent to 22 percent.)

So was the Somali-American electorate in the district the main reason she won the all-important primary? We don’t have exact figures, but we were able to reverse-engineer some answers.

According to the refugee resettlement data, we found that the major jurisdictions of the 5th district -- mainly Minneapolis, but a few others as well -- received roughly half of the Somali refugees who were resettled in the state under both Bush and Obama.

If we use the high end of the Census Bureau’s statewide estimate for Somali Americans in Minnesota -- 55,200 -- then this means the 5th district was probably home to about 27,600 Somali Americans.

So, Omar won more than 65,000 primary votes in a district that likely had about 27,600 Somali-Americans. This means she had to have won tens of thousands of votes from non-Somalis.

And even this probably overstates the impact of Somali-American voters.

Not all of the 27,600 Somalis in the district are able to vote, since Minnesota’s Somali population skews young.

In addition, even those who were eligible to vote may not have turned out at the polls. The district as a whole saw only 18.8 percent of the population turn out to vote in the primary. If the district’s Somali population turned out at that rate, no more than about 5,000 Somali voters would have cast a primary ballot.

And 5,000 votes would have been less than one-tenth of Omar’s primary vote total, and only about one-fifth of her margin of victory.

Was her victory ‘planned’?

The idea that Omar’s victory was preordained by demographics is ridiculous.

No one forced the voters of the 5th congressional district of Minnesota to vote for Omar. 

As we’ve shown, the pattern of Somali settlement in Minnesota long predated Obama’s tenure in the White House. So the viral image has no grounds for singling out Obama.

Our ruling

The viral image said, "Obama settled 43,000 Somalian refugees in Minnesota. As of 2016, there were around 80,000. No wonder Ilhan Omar was elected. It was planned."

The meme significantly overstates the number of Somali refugees settled under Obama in Minnesota, the total number of Somali refugees in the state, and the impact that Somali voters could have had on the primary election results, much less the lopsided general election. In no way can Omar’s victory have been "planned," by Obama or anyone else.

We rate the statement Pants on Fire.

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Pants on Fire
"Obama settled 43,000 Somalian refugees in Minnesota. As of 2016, there were around 80,000. No wonder Ilhan Omar was elected. It was planned."
a Facebook post
Thursday, February 28, 2019

Our Sources

Viral image on Facebook, Feb. 28, 2019

Refugee Processing Center, interactive data tool, accessed March 5, 2019

Ballotpedia, "Minnesota's 5th Congressional District election, 2018," accessed March 5, 2019

U.S. Census Bureau, My Congressional District data tool, accessed March 5, 2019

NPR, "Democrats Planning Another Public Rebuke Of Rep. Ilhan Omar," March 4, 2019

St. Cloud Times, "What Minnesota's Somali population looks like: young, Minnesota-born and working," Dec. 17, 2018

Email interview with Stefanie Chambers, Trinity College political scientist, March 4, 2019

Email interview with Ryan Allen, associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, March 4, 2019

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Meme wrong about Somali-Americans in Ilhan Omar's district

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