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How immigration can power the future of America's heartland

Data: Heartland Forward; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

More foreign-born immigrants are moving to the center of the U.S. than in the past, according to a new report by Heartland Forward.

Why it matters: With population growth in the U.S. slower than it has been for the last 100 years, both highly-skilled and lower-skilled industries across America have come to rely more on immigrants to power their workforces.


  • Many states' populations would be shrinking if not for immigrants, the New York Times reported last year.
  • Immigrants' children typically achieve significant upward mobility. A 2016 population survey showed 38% of 2nd-generation immigrants completed college, compared to 32% of 1st-generation immigrants and 33% of native-born Americans.

The big picture: The report's findings counter perceptions that immigrants tend to settle on the coasts "because they're not welcome" in the middle of the country, Ross DeVol, president and CEO of Heartland Forward, told Axios.

By the numbers: The report found the overall foreign-born population who live in that 20-state region has risen from 23.5% in 2010 to 31% in 2019.

Zoom in: Both Northwest Arkansas and Des Moines house headquarters for some of America's largest companies — which require at least a college degree for many positions and have likely recruited talent from outside the country.

  • In the Northwest Arkansas metropolitan area, the change in foreign-born residents grew by nearly 33% between 2010 and 2019.
  • And a large portion of immigrants moving to the Des Moines area in the last 20 years were likely recruited and already had a college degree, per DeVol.
Data: Heartland Forward. Chart: Axios Visuals

Yes, but: Outside of bigger cities, things are more stark for rural areas, which have suffered population losses for decades.

  • But even there, immigrants have helped stem that tide, thanks to an influx of refugees taking agriculture-focused jobs.

What they're saying: Eldon Alik, counsel general of the Marshallese Consulate in Springdale, Ark., said the community of Marshall Islanders there have been welcomed and largely assimilated into the community.

  • He attributes this partly to a shared Christian faith.
  • And Pew Research Center found in 2017 that most Muslims (55%) in the U.S. feel Americans are generally friendly toward them and most (70%) say they can get ahead with hard work.

What's next: Heartland America believes that further educating mayors, business leaders and governors about immigration benefits may create a grassroots effort to diversify populations with buy-in from the communities.

  • "As we go forward, diversity and inclusion are not optional; it's not something nice — it's fundamental to the economic development of our state," Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry said for the report.

The bottom line: Those invested in the region believe there's a case to be made for attracting immigrants of all skill levels to the country's geographic middle.

  • "This could be part of the formula for fostering stronger job creation and growth overall in heartland communities," DeVol said.

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