A Traditional Immigrant Gateway, Illinois Continues to Welcome New Americans

Communications Associate

March 11, 2016

Immigrants in Illinois are helping to offset a phenomenon taking place throughout America’s heartland: the slow growth or even decline of the native population. The rise in the immigrant population can be seen in Illinois’ metro areas. Chicago experienced growth of just 2.2 percent in its native population between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, as its immigrant population grew 13.2 percent. Other metro areas in Illinois showed similar trends. In Peoria, for example, the native population grew 3.7 percent, while the immigrant population grew 45.9 percent.


The extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from some of the GOP primary candidates — and the subsequent media coverage — might lead many to believe that the American electorate shares these views. But that would be wrong. Several public opinion polls, including the Chicago Council Survey, consistently show that a majority of the American public supports immigration reform and a path to citizenship.”

– Dina Smeltz, Senior Fellow for Public Opinion and Foreign Policy, Chicago Council on Global Affairs

A Gateway City

Along with New York and San Francisco, Chicago has a long history as a top immigrant gateway city. The city has greatly benefited from immigrant settlement, and it is no surprise that today Chicago is a leader when it comes to initiatives to make immigrants feel welcome and safe.

In 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he wanted “to make Chicago the most immigrant-friendly city in the world,” and his administration created an Office of New Americans. In the following year, the city released its New Americans Plan, proposing 27 economic development, education, public safety and civic engagement initiatives to ease the integration of new American residents to Chicago.

A Welcoming State

The welcoming posture of Chicago is echoed at the state level. In recent years, with the lack of congressional action on broad immigration reform, the state has taken steps to accommodate and integrate unauthorized immigrants.

In 2012, the governor signed a law permitting undocumented immigrants to obtain temporary visitor’s driver’s licenses. The law requires immigrants to take driver’s tests and obtain liability insurance, increasing safety on the roads for everyone.

In the early 2000s, Illinois began offering in-state tuition for undocumented students wishing to attend state public colleges and universities. In 2011, the state went further, creating a private fund to accept donations for scholarships for undocumented Illinois students.

In the wake of President Obama’s announcement of his administration’s executive action on immigration, then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed an executive order establishing the Governor’s New Americans’ Welcoming Initiative. This initiative was meant to assist immigrants in Illinois who are potentially eligible for the president’s program. The initiative was paired with another executive order, establishing the Governor’s New Americans Trust Initiative that, among other things, forbids Illinois state law enforcement agencies from detaining and arresting immigrants solely on the basis of immigration status or an administrative immigration warrant.

These initiatives have been implemented in the context of public support for humane immigration reform. When asked in 2014 how undocumented immigrants should be treated, 62 percent of Illinois adults said that immigrants who are currently living in the U.S. illegally should be allowed to become citizens, provided they meet certain requirements. An additional 18 percent said they should be allowed to become permanent residents but not citizens.

Immigrants Play an Outsized Role in the State’s Workforce

Immigrants make up just under 14 percent of Illinois’ population, but the state’s workforce is 17 percent foreign-born. Of these immigrants, nearly 3 in 10 (29 percent) are not authorized to be in the U.S. Undocumented immigrants make up approximately 4 percent of the state’s population and 5 percent of the state’s labor force.

While immigration is helping to stabilize the population of Illinois’ metro areas, the effect is even more pronounced for the population in the prime working years of 35 to 44. From 2000 to 2010, Chicago experienced a 22.1 percent decline in the native-born population in that age group. The number of immigrants in that age group increased by 25.5 percent during the same period. As Illinois continues to experience a decline in the number of native workers, immigrants will continue to play a key role in providing the economy with an infusion of younger workers.

Immigrants Generate Billions in Income and Taxes

In 2010, more than 20 percent of business owners in Illinois were immigrants, and these business owners generated $5.6 billion, or 16.5 percent of total business income in the state. In Chicago, the share of business owners who are immigrants is higher — 27 percent.

In 2013, Latino immigrants were estimated to have paid $4.6 billion in taxes. Undocumented immigrants, though usually in low-income jobs, also paid a substantial amount in state and local taxes — a total of $562 million by one estimate. That amount will increase by about $150 million once undocumented immigrants are granted legal status.

Foreign Students Make Vast Contributions, Especially in STEM Fields

In 2009, foreign students were awarded 52.2 percent of master’s degrees and 48.1 percent of doctoral degrees from Illinois educational institutions in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

In the 2014-2015 academic year, there were more than 46,000 foreign students in Illinois, contributing $1.4 billion to the state’s economy in tuition, fees and living expenses. These students supported more than 20,000 jobs statewide.

Asian and Latino Voters Have Great Potential to Impact Policy

In the 2014 congressional election, the number of Asians and Latinos who voted was small relative to the Illinois electorate as a whole. Illinois voters were 5.8 percent Latino and 2 percent Asian. However, Asians and Latinos make up a much greater share of eligible voters in Illinois: 14.4 percent of Illinois’ electorate in 2014, a share that will increase in future elections.

Illinois Faith, Law Enforcement and Business Media Availability

Sheriff Mark Curran, Lake County, Illinois

Michael Masters, Senior Vice President, The Soufan Group

Chris McElwee, Local Impact Pastor, Wheaton Bible Church

Rebecca Shi, Executive Director, Illinois Business Immigration Coalitio

Matthew Soerens, U.S. Director of Church Mobilization, World Relief

Please contact Cathleen Farrell to arrange interviews.