North Carolina: A New Immigrant Destination

Communications Associate

March 11, 2016

North Carolina has a rapidly growing immigrant population. In 1990, immigrants were just 1.7 percent of the population. During the booming 1990s, that percentage more than tripled, to 5.3 percent. By 2014, it was 7.6 percent.

North Carolina’s attraction for immigrants is such that Charlotte, the state’s largest city, has become a “major emerging immigrant gateway,” according to the Brookings Institute. There were very few foreign-born Charlotte residents until the 1990s, when a boom in building, including construction of the towering Bank of America building, attracted Latino construction workers. The hot Charlotte economy, led by banking, attracted immigrants from all over the world. Between 2000 and 2010, the foreign-born population of Charlotte nearly doubled.

North Carolina’s Latino population (much of which is foreign-born) is also growing rapidly. From 2000 to 2010, the Latino population nearly doubled as a percentage of the population — from 4.7 percent to 8.4 percent. Growth in the Latino population in North Carolina during that period was sixth fastest in the nation. While Latinos have moved to North Carolina’s largest cities, such as Charlotte, where jobs are plentiful, they also reside in smaller towns in rural areas. For example, half the population of the small towns of Robbins and Siler City is Latino. The populations of these and other small towns around the state might be declining if it were not for the Latinos moving in.


“The evangelical Christian community has recognized the need for commonsense, comprehensive immigration reform. This affects our churches and especially the families that are torn apart by our current policies. We have a biblical mandate to welcome the immigrant, to do them no wrong, to treat them as we would like to be treated and to love them. Now is the time to speak up, pray, and fix these broken policies that harm individuals and families.”

Dub Karriker, Senior Pastor, Christian Assembly Church, Durham

Immigrants are Vital to the North Carolina Economy

The immigrant population in North Carolina is still relatively small (23rd among states in foreign-born population as of 2013), but immigrants are now a very important component of the North Carolina economy. Immigrants make up 7.6 percent of the population but 10.5 percent of the state’s workforce, according to the Census Bureau. More immigrant workers (71.4 percent) are in the labor force compared with the native-born (62.4 percent). This is in part because, percentage-wise, more immigrants than natives are in the working-age years of 25 to 64 (73.4 percent vs. 51.1 percent).

Undocumented immigrants in North Carolina, 80 percent of whom have lived in the U.S. for more than five years, are also important to North Carolina employers. They make up nearly 5 percent of the state’s workforce.

Agriculture is central to the state’s economy, generating 20 percent of the state’s income. The state ranks sixth in the nation in the number of migrant farmworkers, and 94 percent of those workers are native Spanish speakers. (A majority of them are presumed to be undocumented immigrants.)

Not all of North Carolina’s immigrants are in farm work, construction, and other manual labor. North Carolina’s immigrants are also entrepreneurs — again, to a greater extent than the native-born. In 2014, 7.9 percent of North Carolina’s immigrants were business owners, compared with 5.6 percent of native-born North Carolinians. In some cities and for some categories of business, the immigrant entrepreneurship rate is much higher. In Charlotte, nearly a third (32.6 percent) of all “main street” businesses (retail, accommodation and food services, and neighborhood services) are immigrant owned. These businesses are important for generating neighborhood-level economic growth and revitalization

In 2012, according to the Census, North Carolina’s 62,000 Asian- and Latino-owned businesses had sales receipts of more than $13.5 billion and employed more than 79,000 people.

Immigrants as Consumers and Taxpayers

While the median household income for North Carolina’s immigrants overall is lower than that of the native-born, median income for immigrants who have become U.S. citizens is higher. At $56,000, it is about $9,000 more than median income for the native-born, according to the Census Bureau.

As consumers, North Carolina’s Asian and Latino populations pumped more than $25 billion into North Carolina’s economy in 2014 with their combined purchasing power. With Charlotte acting as a new immigrant gateway, the price of a home in Mecklenburg County, according to the Partnership for a New American Economy, is approximately $5,900 higher than it would be without immigration. Wake County (Raleigh and the surrounding area) has seen an increase of approximately $5,400 in home values thanks to immigration.

North Carolina’s Latinos paid $2.5 billion in combined federal, state and local taxes in 2013. Of that, $1.4 billion came from immigrants from Latin America. Like everyone else, undocumented immigrants in North Carolina pay taxes as well. In 2013, according to the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy, undocumented immigrants in the state paid $275 million in state and local taxes. If these undocumented immigrants were allowed to legalize and eventually become citizens, their tax payments would increase by an estimated $92 million per year.

Foreign Students are a Boon to North Carolina Colleges and Universities

In the 2014-2015 academic year, more than 17,000 foreign students enrolled in North Carolina colleges and universities. They contributed more than $458 million to the state’s economy in tuition, fees and living expenses. These students supported more than 6,200 jobs statewide.

Foreign students are disproportionally interested in studies in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). In 2009, foreign students were awarded 30.6 percent of master’s degrees and 31.6 percent of doctoral degrees from North Carolina colleges and universities.

Immigration reform that made it easier for these foreign students to stay in the U.S. would help alleviate the state’s shortage of STEM workers.

Local Leaders Recognize Value of Immigrants

North Carolina’s local leaders appreciate the importance of immigrants to the vitality of their cities, and the state’s largest cities have initiatives to make themselves welcoming to immigrants.

Charlotte, the state’s largest city, declared itself to be a “welcoming city” in 2013. In March 2015 the city’s Immigrant Integration Task Force presented recommendations, including steps the city could take to foster immigrant entrepreneurship, increase cooperation between law enforcement and immigrant communities, and promote citizenship, among many others. In January 2015, the City of Durham passed a resolution to welcome Central American children fleeing violence in their homelands. Other cities and towns, including Raleigh, Greensboro, and Carrboro, have welcoming initiatives.

The work of local leaders, however, is threated by actions at the state level. According to Charlotte’s Immigrant Integration Task Force, “State level policies [such as a recent ban on “sanctuary policies”] and anti-immigrant activities in the communities and counties in this region have tempered Charlotte’s welcoming image.”

It is not just urban leaders, however, who have a favorable attitude toward immigrants. According to a public opinion survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2015, North Carolinians favor accommodation for undocumented immigrants: 60 percent of adults in the state said that immigrants who are currently living in the U.S. without documentation should be allowed to become citizens, provided they meet certain requirements. An additional 13 percent said they should be allowed to become permanent residents, but not citizens.

A Small but Pivotal Electorate

Eventually, the immigration conversation will change in North Carolina. In the 2012 presidential election, only 23 percent of Latinos voted Republican. President Obama lost to Mitt Romney in the state by only 92,000 votes. Between 2012 and 2020, researchers project that newly eligible Hispanic and Asian voters in North Carolina will number 178,000 — including Hispanic and Asian citizens turning 18 and new citizens 18 years and older.

North Carolina Faith, Law Enforcement and Business Media Availability

John Faison, CEO, Centro Internacional de Raleigh

Rev. Linda Jones, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina

Dub Karriker, Senior Pastor, Christian Assembly Church, Durham

Bert Lemkes, Co-Owner, Van Wingerden International, Inc.

John Tramontin, Learning Technologies Inc.

Larry Wooten, President, North Carolina Farm Bureau

John White, Vice President, Durham Chamber of Commerce

Please contact Cathleen Farrell to arrange interviews.