Why the Foreign-Born Population in the Midwest Has Skyrocketed - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Why the Foreign-Born Population in the Midwest Has Skyrocketed

Why the Foreign-Born Population in the Midwest Has Skyrocketed

By Stephen Starr


Highly skilled migrants aren’t just heading to California and New York — they’re going to flyover country.

By Stephen Starr

San Francisco, New York and Florida are no longer the top destinations for new immigrants coming to America. Instead, they’re choosing the Midwest — a part of the country reeling from population decline and wider economic stagnation. 

For decades, Midwestern businesses have relied on cheap, unskilled immigrant labor to power industry and agriculture. The trend of highly qualified foreign-born professionals — people who contribute handsomely to the local spending and tax dollars coveted by postindustrial towns and cities — moving to the region is far more recent. According to the Migration Policy Institute:

Between 2000 and 2017, the foreign-born population of Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin grew an average of 45 percent, compared to less than 4% in the American-born population.

In terms of population increase, America’s foreign-born population is around 15 percent — the highest in more than a century — more than the United Kingdom’s nearly 13 percent but far behind Canada (21 percent) and Australia (28 percent). While the foreign-born population in the U.S. increased 43 percent between 2000 and 2017, the American-born population grew just 12 percent. Michigan’s immigrant population increased by 34 percent in that time, while its American-born population fell by nearly 2 percent. Indiana’s and Nebraska’s foreign-born populations rocketed 88 and 92 percent, respectively, while the American-born share grew by just 7 and 9 percent. The states with the biggest percentage growth gap: North Dakota (156 percent foreign-born vs. 15 percent American-born) and South Dakota (118 percent foreign vs. 13 percent American).

Several states outside the Midwest have far higher foreign-born populations: Almost 27 percent of California’s population was born outside the country, 21 percent in Florida, 17 percent in Texas and 23 percent in New York. But those states have long-standing immigrant cultures and histories, as opposed to the Midwest, where the recent boom is itself a calculated strategy.

“[The] trend of attracting immigrants has been in place since about 2010,” says Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. That year, a city-sanctioned program called Global Detroit sought to exploit the professional and creative value immigrants offer Motor City, in the midst of its own turmoil, and helped them connect with employers and startups across southern Michigan. Soon, there was a Global Cleveland and a Global Pittsburgh, and the likes of Dayton, St. Louis and Indianapolis have followed suit with their own immigrant-facilitating projects. 


The advantage of having immigrants in a local community works both ways. Take Dublin, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, where nearly one-fifth of the population is foreign-born. Immigrant professionals are attracted by a highly rated school system and a comparably affordable cost of living despite a median household income of close to $130,000. While just 4.3 percent of Ohio’s population is born overseas, placing it in 40th place nationwide, the figure rises to 18 percent in Dublin.

Here, local businesses have been quick to tap into the specific demands — and opportunities — that new immigrant communities present. “AMC Dublin Village 18 began showing Hindi titles in 2010. On occasion, the theater also offers titles in the Kannada, Punjabi, Tamil and Telugu languages, as demand warrants,” says Ryan Noonan, director of corporate communications at AMC Theatres. As many as four Hindi-language screenings are shown a day at the cinema.

Dublin reflects a broader trend. Cleveland’s suburbs are seeing their foreign-born populations grow faster than urban areas. Detroit’s wealthy Bloomfield Hills district boasts a foreign-born population of almost 20 percent (Michigan’s average is 6.6 percent). In neighboring Wisconsin, a report by Wisconsin Public Radio found that foreign-born people are also more likely to have graduate-level education.

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Protesters gather at the Milwaukee County Courthouse, where they attend a rally against President Donald Trump’s policy on immigration.

Source Getty Images

“Health and computer science are the major fields immigrants in the Midwest are working in,” says Batalova. In Iowa and Minnesota, immigrants occupy one-fifth of all computer and mathematical science jobs. That’s despite the fact that foreign-born residents in those states are just 5 percent and 8 percent of the overall population, respectively, according to the American Immigration Council. In Iowa, almost one-quarter of all physicians are born outside the U.S. 

In 2015, immigrants’ spending power rose to $130 billion in the Great Lakes region, outspending native residents on a per capita level, according to a report by the New American Economy and the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition. Mexico is the most common origin country for immigrants in every Midwestern state except Ohio (where it’s India). Still, India sends more immigrants across the region than any other country — and almost three-quarters of all H-1B visas for skilled professionals go to Indians. And that diversity doesn’t just help immigrants: A 2017 study published in Economic Geography found that cities welcoming to the foreign-born saw wages rise for all residents. 

“You’d think that foreign buyers would be living in places like Florida or California, but there are people from India, China, Sudan, Korea here,” says Tom Kaut, a real estate agent in Iowa City. “It seems as though a lot of parents are following [their professional sons and daughters] from overseas. The folks are working, and you see their parents are walking around the neighborhood or taking care of their grandchildren.”

The downside of all this? There aren’t many, though with an administration in Washington promoting an “America first” mentality, both immigrants and local authorities who hope to attract foreign talent face a challenge. “In that climate, it could be tricky, where [American-born] domestic workers feel immigrants are being helped [through official programs] to succeed, while they are being left behind,” says Batalova. “The general public needs to understand why the local governments are doing this.”

Regardless, the Midwest needs what the migrants have. And that’s a win-win all around.

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