1. Introduction

Kentucky’s population grew by almost 300,000 between 2000 and 2010, and almost one in four of the newcomers to the state were immigrants. This influx almost doubled the state’s population of foreign-born residents, bringing new businesses and an expanded science and engineering labor pool that helped bolster the state’s economy.

  • Size of foreign-born population (2013)


  • Percent of state’s population that is immigrant


  • Growth in foreign-born population 2000-2013


  • Top countries of origin

    Mexico, India, China

2. Economic Impact

Between 2008 and 2018, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are projected to play a key role in US economic growth, adding jobs 73 percent faster than the rest of the economy. For Kentucky, fixing the US immigration system so that it is easier for students trained in America to remain in the country after graduation will be critical: in 2009 more than 29 percent of students earning Master’s or PhD degrees in STEM from the state’s research-intensive universities were foreign-born. Almost 80 percent of Kentucky’s engineering PhD graduates are foreign-born.

  • 29.6%

    Share of STEM graduates at state's most research-intensive schools who are foreign-born (2013)

  • 51.7%

    Share of STEM PhDs who were temporary residents (2013)

  • 79.5%

    Share of Engineering PhDs who were temporary residents (2006-2010)

Foreign-born students create jobs for Kentuckians and often provide the technological innovations that drive economic growth in the state. A recent study by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the American Enterprise Institute found that for every 100 foreign-born graduates of a US Master’s or PhD program who stay in the United States working in a STEM field, 262 jobs are created for Americans. That translates into an employment boost for Kentucky, a state where, in 2010, more than one out of every eight STEM workers with an advanced degree was foreign-born. By 2020, Kentucky will need to fill 66,600 new STEM jobs and immigrants will play a key role in occupying these positions and continuing to promote economic growth.

Immigration Reform = Economic Growth in Kentucky

Reforming our immigration system will generate millions of dollars and thousands of jobs across Kentucky. According to Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI), undocumented immigrants who enroll in a legal path to citizenship will generate more than 4,100 jobs and more than $334 million for the state by 2020. Expanding the number of both high-skilled (H-1B) visas will also have positive economic effects. The new H-1B visas awarded to Kentucky between 2010 and 2013 will translate into 2,495 new jobs for U.S.-born workers in the state by 2020. REMI estimates that expansion of the H-1B program would result in more than 1,700 jobs and add more than $146 million to Gross State Product by 2014.

  • $217 million

    In Kentucky, creating a path to citizenship and expanding the high-skilled visa program would add a total of more than $217 million to Gross State Product in 2014.

In addition to providing valuable support to Kentucky’s workforce, immigrants, specifically Hispanics, are also contributing to Kentucky's economy. A recent study by the Partnership for a New American Economy found that Hispanics account for $1.2 billion in Kentucky’s spending power. Hispanics also contributed $459 million in combined federal, state, and local taxes. A total of $211 million of those taxes went to Social Security and $49 million was paid to the Medicare trust fund.

Immigrants are helping to grow housing wealth in some key Kentucky counties, as well. Between 2000 and 2010, more than 18,000 immigrants arrived in Jefferson County, the area that includes the city of Louisville. By moving into neighborhoods formerly in decline, these immigrants played a role adding to the housing wealth of the neighborhood’s residents. That influx of immigrants added $2,083 to the value of the average home in the county, or more than $644 million to housing wealth there overall.

3. Foreign Innovators

Immigrants have been integral in helping Kentucky grow economically in recent years, especially as the state has struggled, along with the rest of the country, to drive new business and create American jobs. Kentucky’s foreign-born business owners generate 5.4 percent of the state’s business revenues in 2010 despite owning just 3.8 percent of the state’s business.

  • 3.8%

    Share of businesses in Kentucky owned by immigrants

  • $451 million

    Annual business income generated by immigrant-owned businesses

Immigrant entrepreneurs have long made significant contribution to Kentucky’s economy. The Partnership for a New American Economy found that immigrants or their children founded 40 percent of the 2010 Fortune 500 companies and Kentucky immigrants have contributed. The industrial cable titan General Cable and printing and imaging company Lexmark International were founded or co-founded by immigrants. Additionally, Hillerich and Bradsby, manufacturer of the Louisville Slugger baseball bat, is an immigrant-founded Kentucky company. Together, these three companies employ more than 25,000 people and bring in more than $11 billion in annual revenues.

4. Immigrants and Kentucky's Workforce

As in many states, anti-immigration sentiments have recently strengthened in Kentucky. One example of this is ‘Bill 6,’ which the state senate passed in 2011, an Arizona-style immigration law that gives police sweeping powers to question and detain anyone they suspect is in the US illegally.

However, once a fiscal-impact study by the Kentucky State Legislature’s non-partisan staff revealed the bill would cost Kentucky a net $40 million a year in court, prison, and foster-care costs, the Kentucky house voted overwhelmingly to reject it. In 2011, the state senate yielded on a separate immigration bill that would have forced major agriculture and construction companies to find many new seasonal workers. One estimate forecasted that if Kentucky lost its undocumented immigrant population, it would lose $1.7 billion in economic activity, $756.8 million in gross state product, and 12,059 jobs.

In part because of some of the challenges students face remaining in the state after graduation, Kentucky is also currently short of the professional workers it needs in critical STEM areas, fields that help the state’s economy remain innovative and competitive. According to the nonpartisan advocacy group Change the Equation, from 2009 to 2011 some 1.45 STEM jobs were posted online in Kentucky for every one unemployed STEM worker in the state.

  • 1.5:1

    Ratio of STEM jobs to unemployed STEM workers

Kentucky may also need to recruit immigrants to address a coming shortage of medical professionals. According to a report by the Kentucky Institute of Medicine, almost half of Kentucky’s counties are facing a shortage of primary care physicians. Immigrants are already playing a role filling labor gaps: in 2012, 20.6 percent of physicians in the state were graduates of foreign medical schools, a population that is overwhelmingly immigrant. Immigrants also have the potential to make up for what the federal government predicts will be a shortage of 3,244 registered nurses in Kentucky by the year 2030.

  • 218.4

    Number of physicians per 100,000 residents

  • 20.6%

    Share of physicians who graduated from foreign medical schools (2012)

  • 35th

    Physician density rank relative to other states

  • 24.1%

    Share of active physicians who are over age 60

Immigrants in Kentucky are also creating jobs in the state through their seasonal and temporary work. Between 1990 and 2010, Kentucky's supply of less-skilled workers born in the U.S. dropped by 80,481. Over that same period, the state's foreign-born, less-skilled labor force grew by 42,359, leaving a difference of 38,122 openings that immigrants could be filling. According to the US Department of Labor, Kentucky employers were granted certifications to bring in more than 500 workers on H-2B visas in 2013. 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 jobs are created or preserved for American born workers. In Kentucky, the visas authorized in FY 2013 supported more than 2,400 American jobs.

  • 526

    Kentucky H-2B Visas (FY 2013)

  • 2,441

    Jobs Created

However, the H-2B visa can be costly and cumbersome to attain. The average employer spends $2,500 for each H-2B visa it sponsors, and applies to multiple federal agencies in the process. With a more streamlined visa program, job creation in the state could be greater.

5. Spotlight

At the city level, Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer believes in immigrants’ contributions to Kentucky. "We want Louisville to be an international city, welcoming not only the refugee but also the Ph.D," Fischer has said.

In 2011 Fischer appointed Indian immigrant and local entrepreneur Suhas Kulkarni to lead the city’s recently created Office of Globalization. Kulkarni emigrated to Louisville from India in 1985 and opened a grocery store in its Germantown neighborhood. Shortly afterward, he founded Omnitrade International in the back of his store and today it is a global supplier of industrial mining and earth-moving equipment.

The Office of Globalization works to create greater incentives for international businesses to invest in Louisville, while helping Louisville’s businesses expand internationally. It also facilitates Louisville immigrants’ orientation to and engagement with their city through collaboration with local charities, businesses, and government offices. "The Office of Globalization is really one of the most critical initiatives of our city at this point," Kulkarni said. "We have all the great assets known worldwide such as UPS, Yum! Brands, the Kentucky Derby... we need to leverage those assets in a focused, international manner.

Though their contributions look different in each state, immigrants are helping to grow the US economy everywhere. Click on a state to learn more.