A project of the Partnership for a New American Economy
With its close proximity to the Caribbean and Central America, Florida has long been a major point of entry for immigrants coming to America. The Pew Hispanic Center found that in 2011 more than 3.6 million Florida residents—almost one in five people in the state—were born abroad. Immigration was a major factor in the state’s rapid population growth in the 1980s, placing Florida among the top 10 states with the fastest-growing immigrant populations. Even today, Florida continues to attract immigrants: from 2000 to 2011, Florida’s immigrant population grew by more than 38 percent. By contrast, in California and New York, the growth rate was just 14 and 11 percent, respectively.
Size of foreign-born population
Percent of state’s population that is immigrant
Growth in foreign-born population 2000-2010
Top countries of origin
Florida’s large Latino population is a major part of Florida’s large community of foreign born residents. Florida is the only state in the country where the three most common countries of origin for the foreign born are all in Latin America. In 2010, almost one in four of the state’s foreign born residents was born in Cuba, as Florida—and Miami in particular—is the destination of choice for Cuban immigrants who fled Fidel Castro’s regime. The second and third most popular countries of origin for Florida’s immigrants were Mexico and Colombia, which together were the birthplace of almost one in seven of the state’s foreign born residents.
Between 2008 and 2018, STEM fields are projected to play a key role in US economic growth, adding jobs 73 percent faster than the rest of the economy. Fixing the US immigration system to make it easier for students trained in STEM fields at Florida universities to remain in the US after graduating will be critical: in 2009 more than 43 percent of students earning Master’s or PhD degrees in STEM fields from the state’s research-intensive universities were temporary residents, a group with no clear path to stay in America after collecting their diplomas. Two out of three students earning engineering PhDs in Florida in recent years were also noncitizens.
Share of STEM graduates at state's most research-intensive schools who are foreign born (2009): 53.2%
Percent Engineering PhD graduates who were temporary or permanent residents, (2006-2010): 66.3%
A recent study by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the American Enterprise Institute found that for every 100 foreign born graduate of a US Master’s or PhD program who stays in the United States working in a STEM field, 262 jobs are created for Americans. This will translate into an employment boost for Florida, a state where, in 2010, almost one out of every four STEM workers with an advanced degree was a foreigner.
Share of foreign born STEM advanced degree workers (2000): 27.8%
Share of foreign born STEM advanced degree workers (2010): 23.0%
Percent Change: -17.3%
Immigration Reform = Economic Growth in Florida
Reforming our immigration system will generate millions of dollars and thousands of jobs across Florida. According to Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI), undocumented immigrants who enroll in a legal path to citizenship will generate more than 35,000 jobs and more than $2.7 billion for the state by 2020. Expanding the number of both high-skilled (H-1B) visas will also have positive economic effects. REMI estimates that expansion of the H-1B program would result in more than 9,600 jobs and add more than $849 million to Gross State Product by 2014.
In Florida, creating a path to citizenship and expanding the high-skilled visa program would add a total of more than $1.4 billion to Gross State Product in 2014.
Over the past 30 years, the driving force behind net job creation in the US has been new business generation, and in Florida, as in many other places around the country, immigrants have led the charge. In recent years foreign born residents have founded almost 37 percent of all new businesses in Florida, despite making up less than 20 percent of the state’s population. Florida now has the third-highest rate of immigrant business ownership in the country, behind only California and New York.
Latino business owners in particular have a significant presence in Florida. Florida is currently home to seven of the 10 largest Latino-owned businesses in the country, many of which were founded by immigrants. A large number of these firms do business with Central or South America, playing a valuable role boosting US exports. Quich Foods, one company on the list, is a distributor of refrigerated and frozen foods originally founded by a Cuban immigrant. Brightstar Corporation, one of the largest cell phone distributors in the world, was founded by an immigrant from Guatemala.
Immigrant entrepreneurs have been at the heart of many of Florida’s economic success stories. WellCare Health Plans, a Florida-based Fortune 500 health insurance firm, was founded originally by an Indian cardiologist who grew up in Zambia. Several other major firms based in the state, including the transportation giant CSX, the communications firm Harris Corporation, and Office Depot also had at least one founder who either immigrated to the United States or was the child of an immigrant. Together, these four firms employ more than 46,000 people today and bring in almost $80 billion in annual revenue.
Current immigration policy has been harmful to Florida’s economy. From 2000 to 2010, a period when tourists from Brazil, China, and India boosted international travel spending globally, Florida saw its share in the international tourism market decline. This drop amounted to roughly 335,000 lost visitors, as well as $1.3 billion in spending and more than 10,000 jobs.
Florida may also need to recruit immigrants in the coming years to ease the state’s looming shortage of medical professionals. The federal government has projected that the state could be short more than 61,000 registered nurses by 2020. Moreover, state policymakers have already expressed worries about the ability of Florida’s physician workforce to meet future demographic challenges: Florida, a state with a rapidly-aging population, is already short more than 1,950 primary care physicians in rural parts of the state. It also boasts a low number of medical residencies per capita, a key way for states to train—and often keep—the next generation of physicians. Immigrants are already playing a major role filling such labor gaps: in 2010 more than one in three active physicians in the state were graduates of foreign medical schools.
Share of Physicians who graduated from foreign medical schools, 2010: 35.4%
Physicians density rank relative to other states: 45th
Current primary care doctor shortage in rural Florida: 1,951
According to a study by the Center for American Progress and the Partnership for a New American Economy, Florida would also benefit significantly if Congress passed the federal DREAM Act, a bill that would legalize the 2.1 million undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children. In Florida, legalizing the 151,000 so-called DREAMers in the state would have an estimated $21 billion induced economic impact and also create almost 101,000 new jobs by 2030. These benefits would arise because by incentivizing these young people to earn a higher education degree and by allowing them to work legally, the DREAM Act would result in higher earnings and increased spending on products ranging from cars to houses to computers.
DREAMers in the state
Economic impact of passing the DREAM act
Number of jobs created by DREAM act by 2030
Seasonal and temporary workers in Florida also help to create jobs in the state. According to the US Department of Labor, Florida employers were granted certifications to bring in more than 2,300 H-2B visas in fiscal year 2011. These visas, often used to staff places like amusement parks, hotels, or landscaping services, protect American jobs by allowing companies to take on more work. One study by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the American Enterprise Institute found that for every 100 H-2B visa workers, 464 American jobs are created or preserved. In Florida, that means the visas authorized in FY 2011 alone supported about 21,000 American jobs.
Raised by in Zambia, Kiran C. Patel, an Indian-national, came to America in 1976 seeking better opportunities and education for his family. When he made the decision to immigrate, he had already built a successful multi-office medical practice in Zambia, employing a handful of physicians. Still, to practice in the US, he had to once again do a medical residency in his chosen field of cardiology—a factor he says never dampened his enthusiasm about his move to the United States. “I think when you immigrate here looking for a better future,” Patel says, “you don’t see obstacles in your way. You have that fire in your belly that really pushes you to succeed.”
After completing his residency, Patel decided he wanted to work for himself and started his own medical practice in Tampa, Florida. Within five years, he had built a 22-physician medical group, but he hoped to do more. “In my mind, I always felt and knew I could be a successful leader wherever I was,” Patel says.
In 1992 he bought a small struggling HMO, WellCare of New York and Connecticut. While continuing to work 18 hours days for a decade and a half—doubling as a doctor and an executive—he built that business into a highly successful enterprise. By the time Patel sold WellCare in 2002, it was a $1 billion business, insuring more than 400,000 people. Today WellCare sits on the Fortune 500 List, providing jobs to almost 4,000 workers.
In the last decade, Patel has continued to work as an entrepreneur, taking on ownership of two other health insurance firms. He has also become a prominent Florida philanthropist, giving more than $20 million to fund new research centers at the University of South Florida and Tampa’s Pepin Heart Hospital.
Patel says he is often frustrated with the US visa system. “Things are improving gradually,” he says, “but I still think many people are getting too many unreasonable visa denials.” And that has hurt the ability of some of his businesses or charitable ventures to grow. Patel says he has had employees based overseas who have been unable to obtain the visas they need to visit the United States. “Immigrants have been able to contribute to the success and income of this country,” Patel says, “but it’s a two way street, and it’s important that our country welcome them.”
Immigrants are helping to grow the US economy everywhere, not just in the places—like our biggest cities—that we expect. They are helping to fill labor shortages on America’s farms, starting businesses that employ US workers, and developing the cutting-edge products that make America the world’s preeminent innovation hub.
Click on a state to learn more about the contributions immigrants are making to the local economy.