A project of the Partnership for a New American Economy
Rhode Island, one of America’s smaller states, boasts a large population of immigrants with diverse origins. In 2011, according to analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center, more than 13.5 percent of the state’s population is foreign born, putting Rhode Island among the top 20 states in the nation for percent of population born abroad. Rhode Island also experienced a rapid surge in the number of its foreign born residents between 2000 and 2011, when that population grew by almost 60 percent.
Size of foreign-born population
Percent of state’s population that is immigrant
Growth in foreign-born population 2000-2010
Between 2008 and 2018, STEM - or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math - fields are projected to play a key role in US economic growth, adding jobs 73 percent faster than the rest of the economy. For Rhode Island, fixing the US immigration system to make it easier for students trained in America to remain in the country after graduation will be critical: in 2009 more than 45 percent of students earning Master’s or PhD degrees in STEM from the state’s research-intensive universities were temporary residents, a group with no clear path to stay in America after collecting their diplomas. More than 68 percent of students earning engineering PhDs in the state in recent years were also noncitizens.
Share of Science/Engineering graduate students who were temporary residents (2010): 26.9%
Share of STEM graduates at state's most research-intensive schools who are foreign born (2009): 45.4%
Share of Engineering PhDs who were temporary residents (2006-2010): 68.1%
Immigration Reform = Economic Growth in Rhode Island
Reforming our immigration system will generate millions of dollars and thousands of jobs across Rhode Island. According to Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI), undocumented immigrants who enroll in a legal path to citizenship will generate more than 1,100 jobs and more than $96 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 760 jobs and add more than $67 million to Gross State Product by 2014.
In Rhode Island, creating a path to citizenship and expanding the high-skilled visa program would add a total of more than $117 million to Gross State Product in 2014.
Immigrants have been integral in helping Rhode Island 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. In Rhode Island, more than one in seven business owners are immigrants, and their firms generate more than $360 million in business income per year.
Share of business owners who are Immigrants: 14.4%
Annual Business Income Generated by Immigrant-Owned Businesses: $360 million
Attracting and keeping entrepreneurial immigrants will be crucial to Rhode Island’s economy in the coming years. Immigrant entrepreneurs have often had an outsized impact on job creation in Rhode Island as they have elsewhere in the country: two of the top 15 employers in the state, Bank of America and the defense firm General Dynamics, were founded by immigrants or their children. Together, those two firms employed almost 6,000 people in 2011. These jobs are important to the Rhode Island economy: in July 2012, the state had the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation at 10.8 percent.
In part because of some of the challenges Rhode Island’s international university students face remaining in America after graduation, the state is also currently short some of the professional workers it needs in critical STEM areas—the very fields that help the state’s economy remain innovative and competitive. According to the nonpartisan advocacy group Change the Equation, from 2009 to 2011, 2.4 STEM jobs were posted online in Rhode Island for every one unemployed STEM worker in the state. From 2000 to 2010, the state saw a decline in the percentage of highly-educated immigrant STEM workers, a factor that may have exacerbated this shortage.
Ratio of STEM jobs to unemployed STEM workers: 2.4:1
Share of foreign born STEM advanced degree workers (2000): 21.2%
Share of foreign born STEM advanced degree workers (2010): 12.2%
Percent decrease: 42%
Rhode Island may also need to recruit immigrants to address a coming shortage of medical professionals. Although the state has a high density of medical professionals overall, some areas still struggle to meet their medical needs. As recently as last year, as many as 66,000 Rhode Island residents lacked access to primary care doctors or facilities, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. The state also faces a looming shortage of registered nurses. By 2020, federal officials have projected the state could be short as many as 6,300 registered nurses, leaving more than 47 percent of the state’s nursing positions vacant. Immigrants are already playing a role filling medical labor gaps: in 2010 more than one in four physicians in the state were graduates of foreign medical schools, a population that is overwhelmingly immigrant.
Love Sarin, a former student at Brown University, came to the Rhode Island in 2004 from Jaipur, India, and began working towards a PhD in chemical engineering. Within a couple of years, he made a significant finding while researching cancer, discovering that the element Selenium had properties that indicated it could neutralize mercury in the human body. Soon, Sarin’s team began testing the compound outside of the human body as well, and discovered it was effective in making mercury vapors less harmful. “It was really a different route than many researchers had taken before,” Sarin says. Brown officials found the technology so promising they decided to apply for a patent for the discoveries in 2008.
Sarin decided to turn his work into an environmental technology startup. In 2009, shortly after graduating, he and an advisor started Providence-based Banyan Environmental to commercialize their work. Sarin and his team hoped the technology he developed at Brown could be used to make coal-fired power plants less harmful to consumers, potentially saving millions in annual health care costs. They also began producing specialized kits that made it easier to clean up broken fluorescent light bulbs, which are both a health risk and an environmental hazard. “We were very excited about the work and our potential for growth,” Sarin says. In its first two years, Banyan won two competitive grants from the National Science Foundation, as well as the Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council, a government-funded group designed to promote research & development in the state.
However, because the US lacks a visa for entrepreneurs, Sarin at first was only able to stay in the US through Optional Practical Training, a program that lets foreign born graduates stay in America for about two years after graduation, working in their fields of study. Sarin worried that he would be unable to secure a visa that would allow him to stay in the US—especially because, as an Indian native, Sarin would face a particularly long wait to get a green card. To settle permanently, Sarin spent $6,500 on legal fees to apply for a special green-card reserved for immigrants with “extraordinary ability” in their fields. Although he knew the applicants to the visa program were chosen very selectively, lawyers told Sarin the visa was within his reach. Nonetheless, in October 2011, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service rejected Sarin’s application, and after seven years in America, Sarin was forced to leave. “It was shocking and frustrating,” Sarin says. “I had put so much time into my business, it was difficult for me even think about doing anything else,” Sarin says.
Sarin returned to India in late 2011, shuttering Banyan Environmental, a firm that at one point had had three full time employees and provided work to local contract staff like accountants and legal advisors in the state. Sarin now works as a Senior Manager in Breakthrough Research & Development Technology at Reliance Industries, a Fortune Global 500 company and the largest private sector firm in India, and hopes to eventually create another company in the Indian market. And although he says he loves America, Sarin says has no plans to return. “It would have to be something really big and lucrative to inspire me to come back,” Sarin says, “The immigration system comes with too many conditions that really confine what you can do and limit your ability to succeed.”
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.