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 just more than 173,000 (or 3.8 percent), according to analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Size of foreign-born population
Percent of state’s population that is immigrant
Growth in foreign-born population 2000-2010
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. Louisiana will need to fill 69,000 STEM jobs by 2018, 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 nearly 60 percent 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 (2009): 59.5%
Share of Science/Engineering graduate students who were temporary residents (2010): 30.6%
Share of Engineering PhDs who were temporary or permanent residents (2006-2010): 72.8%
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. 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.
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: 8.2%
Number of Immigrant business owners in State (2006-2010): 14,726
Annual business income generated by immigrant-owned businesses: $691 million
Although the foreign born share of Louisiana’s population is only 3.8 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: 2.8:1
Share of foreign born advanced degree workers in STEM fields (2000): 0%
Share of foreign born advanced degree workers in STEM fields (2010): 8.9%
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 7,400 registered nurses by 2020, 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: 232.7
Share of physicians who graduated from foreign medical schools, 2010: 18.9%
Share of medical trainees who leave state after graduation: 32.8%
Share of active physicians who are over age 60: 27.5%
Immigrants in Louisiana are creating jobs through seasonal and temporary work. 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 4,800 workers on H-2B visas in 2011. 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 2011 supported more than 22,200 American jobs.
Louisiana H-2B Visas (FY 2011): 4,795
Jobs Created: 22,249
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.