Immigration a Demographic Lifeline in Midwestern Metros

March 23, 2017

By: Rob Paral, Nonresident Fellow, Global Cities

This report examines how immigrants[1] have helped offset native-born population loss and revitalized an aging workforce in 40-plus Midwestern metro areas between 2000 and 2015. Key findings include:

Midwest Metro Areas Have Fifteen Years of Slow Growth

  • Metro areas in the Midwest are aging and are growing much more slowly than the nation as a whole. Midwest metro populations rose only 7 percent from 2000 to 2015 compared to 14 percent for the nation.


Immigrant Populations Are Helping to Stem Losses

  • In the 2000-2015 period, immigrant populations in Midwest metro areas rose by more than one million persons or 34.5 percent.
  • Growth among immigrants accounted for about 37 percent of all Midwestern metro growth in the last fifteen years.  
  • Immigration is responsible for a majority of population growth in five metro areas, including metro areas of Chicago, Rockford, and Akron.
  • In numerous other metro areas, such as metro Cincinnati, Milwaukee, or Minneapolis, immigration accounts for at least a quarter of population growth.


Natives in 35-44 Age Category in Striking Decline

  • The number of native-born aged 35-44 fell by 1.4 million persons or 24 percent between 2000 and 2015.
  • An increase of 313,000 immigrants aged 35-44 years during the same period has helped to offset the extreme native population loss in that category.


Immigration Critical to a Vibrant Heartland Metropolis

The United States is engaged in a heated debate on the significance and meaning of immigration. While many reputable researchers point out the substantial contributions that immigrants make to local economies, others (including the Trump administration) are building policy proposals to dramatically lower immigration levels.

Amid this debate, the effect of immigration on the metropolitan areas of the Midwest deserves special attention. The 12-state region—which includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin—is home to dozens of metropolitan areas that have come to be increasingly defined by immigration and rely on immigration as a source of population stability.

For many years, Midwestern states and their metro areas have experienced substantial out-migration of residents to other parts of the country. This trend combines with an aging native-born population to create “slow-growth” or even “no-growth” patterns that can be seen across the region. If data demonstrates that immigration offsets or reverses some of these patterns, policymakers should reconsider whether further cuts to immigration are in the best interest of the region.

This report focuses on trends in 46 of the region’s metro areas and is a refresh of a similar study published by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2014. Metro areas are a useful barometer by which to measure the impact of immigration because the economies of central cities and their suburbs are tightly connected and because large immigrant communities are found in both central cities and suburbs of metro areas. Also, the extent to which immigration matters to metro-area economies heightens the importance of immigration as an issue and raises the stakes for immigration reform.

Debates on immigration policy are often driven by events in coastal and border states, where unique situations of labor markets and population change often capture the imagination of national policymakers. But it is critical to recognize that immigration also has a specific and critical meaning to the nation’s Heartland – and the Midwest’s dependence on immigration as a demographic lifeline must be taken into account as the nation debates immigration policy.

Immigrants Bolster Midwestern Metros and Workforce

The last decade and a half has been an era of slow growth for metropolitan areas in the nation’s Midwest. Between 2000 and 2015, a time when the nation as a whole saw its population rise by 14.2 percent, the number of persons living in 46 major metro areas of the Midwest rose by only 7.2 percent.

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The slow growth – and in some places, outright population decline – taking place in Midwestern metro areas is due to changes in the native-born population (i.e., persons born in the United States). The number of native-born residents is falling in about one-third of Midwest metro areas, while another third of the metro areas have growth rates that, while positive, amount to less than 7 percent since 2000.

Along with the slow or even negative growth patterns of the native born, this group is also aging. Baby Boomers – persons born between the years 1946 and 1964 – are now between 54 and 72 years of age. With each passing year, this large population moves into higher age brackets. Younger persons born after the Baby Boom represent a smaller cohort, and as they enter their 30s and 40s, the number of persons in those age brackets is contracting. In the year 2000, there were 5.7 million native-born persons in Midwest metro areas between the ages of 35 and 44.  By 2015, the number of native-born aged 35-44 had fallen by 1.4 million persons, or 24 percent.[2]

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In metropolitan areas across the Midwest, immigration has helped to offset population aging and decline. Immigration has proved extremely important for several reasons. The number of immigrants admitted to the United States each year is large, approaching a million persons per year. These immigrants tend to be young adults, and they usually immigrate to metropolitan areas as opposed to rural parts of the country.

Immigrants are a significant and growing portion of Midwestern metro areas. Foreign-born persons were 7.8 percent of Midwestern metro areas in 2000, but by 2015 their share of the population rose to 9.7 percent. Growth among immigrants accounted for about 37 percent of all Midwestern metro growth in the last fifteen years.  

Growing Immigrant Populations Found Outside Traditional Gateway Cities

The foreign-born represent at least one in every 20 residents (at least 5 percent of the metro population) in 29 of the 46 metro areas analyzed for this report. Areas with the highest percentage of foreign born include traditional immigrant gateways such as metro Chicago (18.1 percent foreign born), Minneapolis (11.9 percent), and Detroit (10.7 percent). But many metro areas less known for their immigrant populations now have sizable foreign-born populations, including Rockford (9.5 percent foreign born), Iowa City (9.3 percent), and Bloomington, Indiana (8.3 percent).

The immigrant portion of the population rose in nearly all of the 46 metro areas studied. The gain in percentage points was greatest in Champaign-Urbana, which rose from 8.1 percent foreign born in 2000 to 12.9 percent in 2015, Minneapolis (7.7 to 11.9 percent), and Rockford (6.2 to 9.5 percent).

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Immigration plays an especially important role in metro areas with declining native populations.  Fourteen Midwest metro areas had fewer native-born residents in 2015 than in 2000.  Examples include metro Akron, which lost more than 4,800 native-born persons; metro Cleveland, which lost more than 97,000 natives; and metro Muncie, which lost more than 2,000 natives.

In other areas, immigration helps offset slow growth of native-born populations. Slow-growing metros include Janesville (native-born growth of 6.3 percent), Racine (6.2 percent), and Lansing-East Lansing (3.8 percent).

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Immigration Drives Metro Growth

As seen in the table below, there are several ways in which growth and decline of native and immigrant populations interact to drive population change.

Immigration is completely responsible for population growth in both the Akron and South Bend-Mishawaka areas, where the native-born population fell between 2000 and 2015 but the arrival of immigrants more than made up for the loss of the native born. Immigration was mostly responsible for growth in the Chicago, Rockford, and Sheboygan metro areas, where the foreign-born were behind at least half of metro growth. And immigration is part of growth – though not the majority of the growth – in most of the other Midwestern metro areas. The share of growth represented by immigration ranges from 3.6 percent in Janesville to 45.3 percent in Champaign-Urbana.

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Immigration Slows Working-Age Native Decline

The native-born cohort aged 35-44 years – the prime working-age population – has dropped in all 46 Midwest metro areas since the year 2000. In half (22 of 46 metros) the decline in this group has exceeded 30 percent. At the same time, the number of immigrants in this age category rose, in some instances by more than 100 percent. The foreign-born now play a critical role in offsetting regional workforce gaps created by an aging native-born population.

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Building Policies to Support the Demographic Lifeline

Fairly or not, much of the national debate on immigration revolves around the question of whether immigrants compete with native workers. But in Midwest metro areas a different concern exists that too often falls outside of the national debate. Large areas of the Midwest region are experiencing outright population decline. This means that local employers and the economies in which they function have fewer workers to contribute to production and fewer earners to consume goods and services. As the national debate on immigration moves ahead, Midwestern policymakers and leaders need to be aware that immigration is a demographic lifeline for the region.


The purpose of this report is to demonstrate the critical role that immigration plays in maintaining population levels in Midwestern metro areas. The analysis required the development of data on native-born and foreign-born persons by age for each metropolitan area in the Midwest of at least 100,000 population, within constraints imposed by the type of data available from the US Census Bureau.

The only source of data on nativity and age for the year 2000 are the Public Use Microdata Samples of the 2000 Census, which are reported for geographic units called Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs). Unfortunately, the boundaries of PUMAs of year 2000 do not match those of PUMAs reported by the 2015 American Community Survey.

However,, created by the University of Minnesota, has combined and matched PUMAs of both years 2000 and 2017 so that they share boundaries. [3] The university provides this data for a geographic unit they describe as Consistent PUMAs (CPUMAs). These CPUMAs allow us to provide consistent comparisons of data from 2000 to 2017. A limitation, however, is that some CPUMA boundaries do not match a metro area’s actual boundaries. For this report we included metro areas where the population in CPUMAs was at least 80 percent of the current population of the metro area. This allowed data to be generated for 44 metro areas. In 29 of these areas, the CPUMAs included all of the metro area population; that is, the CPUMA boundaries perfectly match the metro area boundaries.

The metro areas of St. Louis and Kansas City could not be modeled with CPUMA data because of mismatching boundaries between CPUMAs and the formal metro area definition. Because St. Louis and Kansas City metro areas are large and important metro areas, we developed special calculations for their nativity and age characteristics. In these areas we used control totals of native-born and foreign-born populations for the year 2000. We also created proxy age distributions using 2000 PUMAs entirely within the current boundaries of those metro areas. For metro St. Louis and metro Kansas City in year 2015, we used published ACS tables by county to construct the nativity and age information. Including metro St. Louis and Kansas City in our list of metro areas leads to a total of 46 metro areas available for analysis.

This report includes foreign-born persons of all immigration statuses. The US Census Bureau does not ask survey respondents about their immigration status.

[1] This report includes foreign-born persons of all immigration statuses. The US Census Bureau does not ask survey respondents about their immigration status.

[2] The drop-off among persons in their prime working years is a national phenomenon. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of persons aged 35-44 in the United States fell by 4.3 million persons.

[3] Steven Ruggles, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 6.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2015.

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