1. Introduction

In 2007, Oklahoma passed one of the country’s strictest anti-immigrant laws, the Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act. Among other things, House Bill 1804 eliminated public assistance and taxpayer-funded benefits for undocumented immigrants, made it a felony to assist or transport any undocumented person, prohibited undocumented immigrants from getting any form of state identification, and required police to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the US illegally. Beyond impacting undocumented immigrants, this legislation has had negative effects on legal immigrants and on the state economy. A study by the Urban Institute estimates that the bill may have caused a much as a 1.3 percent drop in economic output statewide and $1.3 billion in economic losses. Another study by the same group found that this legislation has had ripple effects on the citizen children of undocumented immigrants, decreasing their access to public benefits and university financial aid.

Despite these restrictions, however, Oklahoma has continued to experience an increase in the size of its foreign-born population. Between 2000 and 2013 the foreign-born population here grew by more than 61 percent, placing Oklahoma’s non US-born population among the top 10 fastest growing in the country. Oklahoma’s 200,000 immigrants now comprise 5.5 percent of the state’s workforce, with immigrant entrepreneurs and consumers adding an estimated $8.2 billion to 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, Vietnam, Guatemala

2. Economic Impact

Between 2008 and 2018, science, technology, engineering, and math (or 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 Oklahoma to remain in the country after graduation will be critical. In 2013, more than 50 percent of the students earning Master’s or PhD degrees in STEM from the state’s research-intensive universities were foreign-born. In recent years, noncitizens have earned more than 70 percent of the engineering PhDs granted in the state. The 8,400 foreign students in Oklahoma contributed more than $174 million to the state’s economy in tuition, fees, and living expenses during the 2008-2009 academic year.

  • 33.2%

    Share of Science/Engineering graduate students who were temporary residents (2010)

  • 51.7%

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

  • 70.3%

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

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 stays in the United States working in a STEM field, 262 jobs are created for Americans. This estimate translates into an employment boost for Oklahoma, where one in ten STEM workers with an advanced degree is an immigrant. By 2020, Oklahoma will need to fill 64,090 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 Oklahoma

Reforming our immigration system will generate millions of dollars and thousands of jobs across Oklahoma. According to Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI), undocumented immigrants who enroll in a legal path to citizenship will generate more than 3,900 jobs and more than $317 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 Oklahoma between 2010 and 2013 will translate into 1,919 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 1,500 jobs and add more than $140 million to Gross State Product by 2014.

  • $210 million

    In Oklahoma, creating a path to citizenship and expanding the high-skilled visa program would add a total of more than $210 million to Gross State Product in 2014.

Hispanics play an important role in all areas in Oklahoma, but a report recently published by the Partnership for a New American Economy shows how significant their economic contribution is. Statewide, Hispanics account for $3.4 billion of the spending power. They also pay $1.1 billion in federal, state, and local taxes; $553 million of that amount goes to Social Security and $129 million goes to the Medicare trust fund.

Immigrants are helping to grow housing wealth in some key Oklahoma counties as well. Between 2000 and 2010, more than 21,033 immigrants arrived in Oklahoma County, the area that includes the city of Oklahoma City. By moving into this neighborhood, immigrants played a role in adding to the housing wealth of the neighborhood’s residents. That influx of immigrants added $2,430 to the value of the average home in the county, or more than $698 million to housing wealth there overall.

3. Foreign Innovators

Across the US, immigrants start more than a quarter of all businesses in seven of the eight sectors of the economy that the federal government expects to grow the fastest in the next decade-- including healthcare, construction, retail, and educational services. In Oklahoma, as in other places around the country, immigrants make an outsized contribution to this new business growth: in 2010, nearly seven percent of business owners in Oklahoma were immigrants, despite making up 5.6 percent of the state’s population, a small but significant difference. From 2006 to 2010, immigrant-owned businesses generated more than $475 million in annual income for the state. These businesses also create jobs: Oklahoma’s 7,700 Latino-owned businesses employed nearly 9,000 people in 2007, while the state’s 6,700 Asian-owned businesses employed 15,700 people.

  • 6.9%

    Share of business owners who are Immigrants

  • 11,983

    Number of immigrant-founded businesses in the state

Immigrants in Oklahoma help to revitalize struggling towns. The Council on Foreign Relations has found that immigrants, along with immigrant-owned businesses, have helped depopulated and financially depressed small towns become stronger economically, including Guymon, OK.

4. Immigrants and Oklahoma's Workforce

In part because of some of the challenges Oklahoma’s international university students face remaining in America after graduation, the state 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 almost three STEM jobs were posted online in Oklahoma for every one unemployed STEM worker in the state. Oklahoma will have 81,000 open STEM positions by 2018.

  • 2.9:1

    Ratio of STEM jobs to unemployed STEM workers

  • 16.3%

    Share of foreign-born STEM advanced degree workers (2000)

  • 10.0%

    Share of foreign-born STEM advanced degree workers (2010)

  • 38.5%

    Percent Decrease

Oklahoma may also need to recruit immigrants to address a coming shortage of medical professionals. By 2030, the state will be short 11,120 registered nurses, leaving more than one in four positions vacant. Oklahoma is currently lacking 7,406 needed physicians, and was ranked last in the nation by a New England Journal of Medicine survey assessing patient access to healthcare.

Immigrants are already playing a role filling these gaps: in 2012 more than one in six active physicians in Oklahoma were graduates of foreign medical schools, a population that is overwhelmingly immigrant.

  • Bottom 10

    Oklahoma ranks in the bottom 10 states in number of active physicians per capita, specialists per capita, and age of active physicians.

  • 198.8

    Number of physicians per 100,000

  • 7,406

    Current shortage of doctors

  • 11,120

    Nursing shortage by 2030

  • 17.1%

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

Foreigners in Oklahoma are also creating jobs through seasonal and temporary work. According to the US Department of Labor, Oklahoma’s employers were granted certifications to bring in more than 1,400 workers on H-2B visas in 2013. A 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. The 1,423 visas authorized in Oklahoma 2013 supported more than 6,603 American jobs.

  • 1,423

    Number of Oklahoma H-2B Visas (FY 2013)

  • 6,603

    Jobs Created

The H-2B visa, however, 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, the program’s job creation effects in the state could be greater.

5. Spotlight

At eight years old, Ed Sanchez boarded an airplane with his mother and two sisters, all of them passengers on a 1966 US-government “Freedom Flight” that transported political refugees out of Cuba. Born in Guantanamo, about 50 miles from the eponymous naval base, Sanchez arrived in Florida to a cramped apartment shared by seven family members.

In Miami, Sanchez got his first paying job working at a McDonald’s part-time. Soon after, at just 18 years old, he was promoted to store manager. Sanchez began to climb the corporate ladder quickly, becoming area supervisor and then traveling to Puerto Rico and the Caribbean to open new McDonald’s stores. He stayed at McDonald’s for 27 years, eventually becoming president of McDonald’s Canada and Latin America, and he became an American citizen on the 200th anniversary of America’s birth: July 4, 1976.

He joined Lopez Foods in 2004 as President. A food processing company with more than 1,000 employees, Lopez Foods has three plants, including ones in Oklahoma City and Ponca City. He now counts his former employer, McDonalds, as well as giants like Costco, Walmart, and Burger King, among his clients.

Sanchez has felt the impact of immigration policy on his business. Despite offering a competitive salary and bonus program, he says that it is difficult to hire and retain good people. “Our immigrants have a great work ethic. They’re hungry for success, and want to make something of themselves, and provide for their families.”

He hopes to see a “common-sense” approach to immigration reform, one that recognizes immigrants for their entrepreneurship and contributions. “[T]his is the greatest country in the world,” says Sanchez. “After all, where else could an immigrant like me could become one of the top guys at a multinational corporation?”

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