A project of the Partnership for a New American Economy
Louisiana has long been an enclave of ethnic and cultural heterogeneity with immigrant groups ranging from Acadians (Cajuns), Creoles, and French settlers to the Irish, Germans, Chinese, Africans, Haitians, and Canary Islanders who followed. The state’s history with immigrants, who settled in the “Gateway of America” at the Port of New Orleans, has shaped Louisiana’s economy and cultural heritage. More recently, demand in the shipbuilding and oil industries has drawn more immigrants to the region. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, a recovering construction trade and Gulf Coast seafood industry has brought an influx of Mexican workers. Still, the state’s immigrant population is much smaller than its other neighbors in the South; Louisiana has a foreign-born population of roughly 176,000 (or 3.9 percent), according to the American Community Survey.
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
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. By 2020, Louisiana will need to fill 67,230 new STEM jobs, but the state’s ability to produce a skilled workforce has lagged behind growing demand. Immigrants have been helping to close the shortfall in these areas. 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. These numbers translate into a large employment boost for the state, where, in 2013, nearly half of all STEM graduates at the most research-intensive universities are foreign-born.
The federal government limits new H-1B temporary work visas for private-sector workers at 65,000 per year and there are only an additional 20,000 new H-1B visas available to individuals with US advanced degrees. This means that far more skilled workers are waiting for US visas than can be admitted under current law, and many students who graduate here have no clear path to stay in America. Fixing this broken system will be critical to ensuring Louisiana’s continued growth and competitiveness.
Share of STEM graduates at state's most research-intensive schools who are foreign-born (2013)
Share of Science/Engineering graduate students who were temporary residents (2010)
Share of Engineering PhDs who were temporary or permanent residents (2006-2010)
Immigration Reform = Economic Growth in Louisiana
Reforming our immigration system will generate millions of dollars and thousands of jobs across Louisiana. According to Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI), undocumented immigrants who enroll in a legal path to citizenship will generate more than 5,700 jobs and more than $500 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 Louisiana between 2010 and 2013 will translate into 2,674 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 1,800 jobs and add more than $169 million to Gross State Product by 2014.
In Louisiana, creating a path to citizenship and expanding the high-skilled visa program would add a total of more than $258 million to Gross State Product in 2014.
In addition to providing valuable support to Louisiana’s workforce, immigrants, specifically Hispanics, are also contributing to Louisiana's economy. A recent study by the Partnership for a New American Economy found that Hispanics account for $2.8 billion in Louisiana’s spending power. Hispanics also contributed $1 billion in combined federal, state, and local taxes. A total of $478 million of those taxes went to Social Security and $112 million was paid to the Medicare trust fund.
Immigrants are helping to grow housing wealth in some key Louisiana counties, as well. Between 2000 and 2010, more than 11,000 immigrants arrived in Jefferson Parish County, the area outside of New Orleans. 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 $1,373 to the value of the average home in the county, or more than $232 million to housing wealth there overall.
Across the US, immigrants start more than a quarter of all businesses in seven of eight sectors of the economy that the federal government expects to grow the fastest over the next decade, including healthcare, construction, retail, and educational services. In Louisiana, immigrants have made considerable contributions as entrepreneurs, and generated $691 million in business income annually between 2006 and 2010.
Share of business owners in Louisiana who are immigrants
Number of Immigrant business owners in State (2006-2010)
Annual business income generated by immigrant-owned businesses
Although the foreign-born share of Louisiana’s population is only 3.9 percent, the foreign-born share of the state’s labor force is 5.3 percent, a small but significant difference. The top three industries of immigrant workers in Louisiana are management, business, science, and arts occupations; natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations; and service occupations.
Immigrants are filling gaps in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) pipeline. According to the nonpartisan advocacy group Change the Equation, there are currently 2.8 STEM jobs available for every unemployed STEM worker in Louisiana. Employers cannot find enough qualified candidates to fill the STEM jobs needed, even with the current number of immigrant STEM workers in these fields.
Ratio of STEM jobs to unemployed STEM workers
Share of foreign-born advanced degree workers in STEM fields (2000)
Share of foreign-born advanced degree workers in STEM fields (2010)
Louisiana may also need to recruit immigrants to address a coming shortage of medical professionals. The federal government estimates that Louisiana will be short more than 10,249 registered nurses by 2030, leaving one in every six RN positions vacant. Louisiana currently ranks 30th in the nation in the number of doctors per 100,000 people. Given that nearly 28 percent of physicians are age 60 or older and a third of all medical school trainees leave the state, Louisiana needs international medical graduates to help fill the workforce shortfall. Even now, international medical graduates account for approximately 19 percent of all active physicians in Louisiana and play a critical role in our healthcare system.
Number of physicians per 100,000 residents
Share of physicians who graduated from foreign medical schools (2012)
Share of medical trainees who leave state after graduation
Share of active physicians who are over age 60
Immigrants in Louisiana are creating jobs through seasonal and temporary work. Between 1990 and 2010, Louisiana's supply of less-skilled workers born in the U.S. dropped by 81,952. Over that same period, the state's foreign-born, less-skilled labor force grew by 36,664, leaving a difference of 45,288 openings that immigrants could be filling. The state’s newest immigrants – mainly laborers from Mexico – have come in large numbers to fill gaps in a labor market stripped of its normal workforce by multiple natural disasters, including hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In the metropolitan New Orleans area, Katrina simultaneously dispersed the native workforce and destroyed its housing, creating a vacuum in the local workforce and a tremendous demand for labor. According to the US Department of Labor, Louisiana employers were granted certifications to bring in nearly 3,900 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 Louisiana, the visas authorized in 2013 supported almost 18,000 American jobs.
Louisiana H-2B Visas (FY 2013)
Louisiana’s sugar cane, rice, livestock, and cotton industries also continue to benefit from the H-2A visa program, which allows immigrants to find temporary or seasonal agricultural work. As in other industries, the post-Katrina climate has contributed to a shortage of native agricultural laborers. In 2011, 7,409 visas were granted to temporary agricultural workers in the state – the fourth highest in the nation – and yet a worker shortage persists.
However, these guest worker programs face many challenges. There continues to be relatively low levels of participation in the H-2A program, for instance, both in the state and across the country. Both visas are costly and 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. A more streamlined visa program could promote greater job creation in the state.
Juan Jose Lopez, a student from Quito, Ecuador, earned a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of New Orleans this year, and while he hopes to use the training he received here in the US, he has no clear path to stay in this country. To give himself options, he is applying for engineering jobs, to graduate school, and for his Optional Practical Training (OPT) extension visa, which would allow him to work temporarily on a student visa.
Throughout his job search, Lopez says every interview is the same. "The last question you always get is 'Do you need sponsorship?'," he says. His experiences suggest that for some companies, a great resume, an American degree, and good recommendations are not enough to surpass the risks of employing someone whose path in the US is uncertain.
Lopez says he has watched many of his friends get OPT extension visas, and work in the US for a couple years, only to be forced to go home. Even if the company agrees to sponsor the employee, there are no guarantees. Lopez’s sister graduated from an American university and went to work for a company that agreed to sponsor her. But after submitting the application, completing all of the paperwork, and running through two-and-a-half years of an OPT extension, she received a letter saying there were not enough visas left that year. Now, she is starting graduate school in part so that she can stay here in the US.
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.