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Data Points | Immigrant Population Loss Endangers the Chicago Region’s Workforce

At least one in five workers in Chicagoland is an immigrant. Recent population data reveals that our region is losing immigrants critical to our economy and communities.

In anticipation of what the 2020 Census will reveal about the makeup of the nation’s population, many stories have circulated around the stagnation in population growth, aging population, and rising diversity among younger generations. But many of the trends that will emerge in the 2020 Census results are already evident, at least in the Chicago region. Among them, there is an angle that demands our immediate attention: With declining fertility rates, and rising deaths as Baby Boomers age and the coronavirus continues to spread, the Chicago region could soon face a stagnant workforce, particularly if its immigrant population continues to fall.

Below we examine immigrant[1]  population trends and discuss the crucial role they play in the future of our region.

Chicagoland is losing foreign-born residents

Immigrants make up about 21.8% of the Chicago region’s workforce. But by 2019, the number of Chicago’s immigrant workers had declined for two consecutive years.

The region is in the middle of a perfect storm: each of the main forces affecting population growth – births, deaths, and immigration – are driving the population down. But even before the pandemic, the Chicago region was losing people. In 2019, the region lost nearly 40,000 residents – of which 47% were immigrants – and had a total of 1,661,568 immigrant residents, the lowest in a decade.[2]  

Comparing the Chicago region with the 20 largest metropolitan areas, we found that the trends vary across geographies (see Figure 1). Even metropolitan areas known for their high foreign-born concentrations and their sanctuary protections are losing immigrants. The three largest metro areas, once popular destinations among immigrants – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – ended the decade with some of the biggest declines, while the nation and other metro areas continued to see growth but at a lesser rate than they did during the first half of the 2010s.

Figure 1. Foreign-born population growth rates for the 20 largest metropolitan areas, 2015-2019: Foreign-born population grows in the U.S. but declines in the Chicago region

Immigrants are essential to the region’s labor force but there are fewer non-citizen[3] workers than a decade ago.

Without immigrants, the social and economic challenges of a slow-growing population will only get worse. Immigration curbs population loss, so the fact that the Chicago region is losing immigrants is troubling.

Immigrants make up about 21.8% of the Chicago region’s workforce. From 2010 to 2017, the immigrant workforce in the Chicago region grew by 7.47%, reaching the highest peak of the decade in 2017. But by 2019, the number of Chicago’s immigrant workers had declined for two consecutive years. 

The loss of non-citizen workers in the Chicago metropolitan area is largely due to decreases in Mexicans, whose population has shrunk by 30.85% since 2010.

This recent decline in foreign-born workers is largely attributable to a negative growth of non-citizen workers – a group that includes both legal and undocumented immigrants (see Figure 2).

Census data does not distinguish between legal and undocumented non-citizens. However, it is clear that the previous administration’s efforts to curtail immigration, legal and illegal, have contributed to fewer inflows and greater rants.  

With nearly 27,000 losses in 2019 alone, the steady decline in non-citizen workers coupled with our state’s much-publicized population loss, could prove a major driver of the region’s workforce stagnation, which is already showing signs of slowing down. A stagnant workforce means American adults in working ages of 25 to 64 will have to work harder, longer or more productively to prevent the economy from suffering. This is the scenario that some countries in Europe and Asia face nowadays, where a smaller cohort of working-age adults are called upon to support growing numbers of retirees. 

Figure 2. Number of immigrants in the workforce*, 2010-2019: The Chicago region is losing non-citizen workers.

Our pool of naturalized workers is growing while our pool of non-citizens is shrinking.

Comparing the Chicago region with the 20 largest metropolitan areas (see Figure 3), American Community Survey data shows that during 2015 to 2019, all metro areas expanded their population of naturalized workers while half of them lost non-citizen workers, with San Diego losing the greatest share and Chicago not far behind with the 4th largest decrease. 

The loss of non-citizen workers in the Chicago metropolitan area is largely due to decreases in Mexicans, whose population has shrunk by 30.85% since 2010. As a result of these trends, the composition of the Chicago region’s immigrant workforce is likely to change, becoming increasingly made up of longer-term naturalized workers and Asian immigrants. As immigration from Latin America slows down, the share of Hispanic workers is expected to fall, while Asians are expected to make up a larger share of immigrants as they continue to grow.

Figure 3. Growth rates of foreign-born workers* by citizenship status for top 20 metropolitan areas: 2015-2019


Without immigrants to help offset population loss, the region could further stagnate as a growing share of the population is reaching its retirement age. Since immigrants tend to arrive at younger ages, more immigration means more younger, working-age adults helping to support the region. 

For example, lower immigration rates will hurt Social Security. With less immigration and declining fertility rates, there will be fewer younger adults supporting the system, jeopardizing older generations’ livelihood. Since immigrants tend to be younger, they help pay into Social Security systems for longer before they claim benefits. Additionally, the unauthorized immigrant population also contributes significantly to state and local taxes, including sales, excise, property, and even income taxes for Social Security and Medicare, despite the fact they are not eligible to receive these benefits.

Additionally, immigrant diversity creates multiple advantages. Immigrants are a force of innovation and entrepreneurship and give Chicago its competitive edge. According to a report from New America Economy, in 2016 immigrants represented 36.4% of Chicago’s entrepreneurs, despite accounting for 20.7% of the total Chicago population, and were 67.4% more likely to be entrepreneurs than their U.S.-born counterparts.

Changing the narrative

One way to secure positive growth and offset the region’s population loss is to maintain a healthy stream of immigrants coming into the country. Policies reducing immigration levels or even keeping them stable are not the way to go when the nation’s population growth needs a boost from immigration.

But, there’s a problem: Racism, xenophobia, and immigration policies designed to preserve whiteness and promote individual exceptionalism. A history of racist immigration policies and enforcement have led us to where we are today. Today’s climate is the legacy of immigration laws designed to keep out anyone who is not a “desirable” immigrant.

The “good immigrant, bad immigrant” binary narrative needs to stop. By only elevating the stories of young, educated and economically productive immigrants while criminalizing the rest, we are perpetuating the idea that immigrants need to be exceptional to be deserving of U.S. residence, citizenship, or even basic rights. It is time we go back to embracing the notion that everyone deserves access to equal opportunities – especially immigrant families who contribute to the vibrancy of our region in countless ways, yet whose right is constantly challenged in dominant narratives today. COVID-19 has only made things worse, underscoring the inequalities facing multigenerational and multiracial immigrant communities by intensifying their economic precarity and vulnerability. When 2020 Census estimates are released we are likely to find that these troubling population trends have only accelerated.

Our policy conversations around immigration policy should be centered around principles such as diversity, human rights, and family values, not only the economic perspective. This is needed now, more than ever, when we are witnessing white supremacist, xenophobic narratives among national media and policymakers.

Treating Chicagoland’s immigrants with respect doesn’t only benefit the immigrant population. It benefits all of us, economically and culturally. It has always been what makes our region great, and we want to keep it that way.

[1] For the purpose of this post, the term ‘immigrants’ refers to anyone who is not a U.S citizen at birth, including those who become U.S citizens through naturalization.

[2] Non-U.S. Citizens include lawful permanent residents (green-card holders), temporary migrants (such as persons with student or work visas), humanitarian migrants (such as refugees and asylees), and unauthorized migrants.

[3] American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates