Report: Immigration Restriction Has Legacy of Depleting Midwest Cities; New Restrictions Could Set the Region Back Again

September 18, 2017

Restrictive immigration laws depleted Midwestern cities' populations in the past, according to a new analysis from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The findings provide a demographic analysis of the potential consequences of new attempts on Capitol Hill to make deep cuts to immigration levels.

The report, "Looking Back to Look Forward: Lessons from the Immigration Histories of Midwestern Cities," finds that  restrictive immigration policies enacted  1917-1924 were a key factor in the decades-long population decline of Midwestern cities. Only in the last few decades have immigrant populations begun to rebound in these cities, helping to stabilize ongoing loss of native-born residents.

The report concludes that new restrictive immigration policies would sever a lifeline of much-needed growth in Midwest cities.

"For cities in the Midwest, restricting current immigration levels is the last thing they need: an unnecessary tourniquet applied to a precious supply of new residents and workers," said Rob Paral, author of the study and nonresident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "Indeed, cutting immigration is arguably one of the most effective ways to hamstring continued redevelopment of Midwestern cities."

The analysis included 13 large Midwestern cities: Akron, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Omaha, St. Louis, St. Paul and Toledo. Key takeaways include:

  • The 13 large Midwestern cities grew by 120 percent between 1900 and 1930. Some 41 percent of this population boom was fueled by a 55 percent increase in foreign-born residents and their children.
  • Following a series of 1920s-era legislation that restricted immigration to the United States, the foreign-born population of these 13 cities fell 64 percent between 1930 and 1970.
  • The dramatic decline in foreign-born population correlated with stagnation in Midwestern cities. Between 1950 and 1970 (when effects of 1920s-era immigration policies began to be felt), these cities’ population collectively fell by 7.5 percent.

The report also documents Midwestern cities’ contemporary dependence on foreign-born residents. Since 1990, the 13 cities’ foreign-born population has grown 45 percent, helping offset losses of native-born residents.

“New cuts to immigration will affect more than just immigrants, and the story here goes beyond just population loss,” said Sara McElmurry, assistant director of immigration at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Shrinking cities aren’t vibrant cities. Population loss has dramatic effects on local tax revenues, federal political representation, and workforces in key industries that power the regional economy.”

To read and download the full report, please click here.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ immigration studies are supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.