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Immigrants Offset Population Decline, Keep Midwest Economy Afloat

In 2017, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs published Immigration a Demographic Lifeline in Midwestern Metros,” a report demonstrating how immigrants have helped offset U.S.-born population loss across the Midwest and revitalized an aging workforce. “Native-born Americans are getting older, so working-age natives — folks in their 30s and 40s — are declining,” says the study’s author, Rob Paral, a demographer and expert in community development and immigrant integration. “And that’s a key group of people getting replenished by immigrants.”

Immigrants almost never make up for population loss completely, but they’re helping us not have such an extreme demographic decline.

Paral’s study shows that the immigrant population in the Midwest has increased by more than 1 million, or nearly 35 percent, since 2000. While these new Americans have helped to populate a shrinking workforce, the country still needs more manpower, Paral says: “Immigrants almost never make up for population loss completely, but they’re helping us not have such an extreme demographic decline.”

To keep our economy thriving and moving forward, Paral says the United States must start issuing more visas to people from Mexico who want to contribute to our workforce and provide money to their families. “The biggest issue when it comes to immigration is undocumented immigration,” he says. “And that’s just because of the lack of adequate and appropriate types of visas available for low-skilled workers.”

In Paral’s own small congressional district, in central Illinois, immigrants punch above their weight in several key industries. Although they comprise just 5 percent of the total population, immigrants account for nearly 9 percent of all employees in education and health services and nearly 8 percent of all employees in recreation and food services, according to New American Economy research. Given that immigrants are more likely to lack a high school diploma than are U.S.-born workers, they tend to take low-skilled jobs in those industries, jobs that would often otherwise remain unfilled. In addition, immigrants in the district mirror national demographics in that they are far more likely to be of working age: 61 percent of immigrants there are between the ages of 25 and 64; by comparison, just 49 percent of those born in America fall into that age group. In 2014, immigrants in the district paid $238 million in taxes.

Still, Paral points out that as undocumented immigration declines, it becomes increasingly important for the nation to help support immigrants who already live and work here. “It’s almost not so much a question of creating new visas in this current climate as it is helping people who are here for a long time get a legal status,” he says. “The great majority of undocumented immigrants are working hard for us, so I’d support that.”

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