1. Introduction

According to data from the American Community Survey, Tennessee’s foreign-born population grew by almost 30 percent between 2000 and 2013. The biggest change was in immigrants from Mexico, who increased 2,166 percent between 1990 and 2000, and now make up about one-third of all foreign-born residents in Tennessee. Immigrants from India and China are the next largest groups, in contrast to 1990 when German-, UK- and Canadian-born immigrants were the largest groups.

  • 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, 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 Tennessee, 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 2013, almost than one in three students earning Master’s or PhD degrees in STEM from the state’s research-intensive universities were foreign-born. Almost 60 percent of students earning engineering PhDs from Tennessee schools in recent years were noncitizens.

  • 28.4%

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

  • 59%

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

Foreign-born students create jobs for Tennesseans 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 a large employment boost for Tennessee, where in 2010, more than 19 percent of STEM workers with an advanced degree were foreign-born – a jump of more than 84 percent since 2000. By 2020, Tennessee will need to fill14,930 new STEM jobs and immigrants will play a key role in occupying these positions and continuing to promote economic growth.

  • 10.6%

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

  • 19.5%

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

  • 84.8%

    Percent Increase

Immigration Reform = Economic Growth in Tennessee

Reforming our immigration system will generate millions of dollars and thousands of jobs across Tennessee. In the Nashville metropolitan area, 2007 and 2008 H-1B visa denials cost U.S.-born tech workers as many as 1,259 additional jobs and as much as $11,763,000 in missed wages by 2010. According to Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI), undocumented immigrants who enroll in a legal path to citizenship will generate more than 8,700 jobs and more than $668 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 Tennessee between 2010 and 2013 will translate into 5,879 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 3,200 jobs and add more than $268 million to Gross State Product by 2014.

  • $404 million

    In Tennessee, creating a path to citizenship and expanding the high-skilled visa program would add a total of more than $404 million to Gross State Product in 2014.

Hispanics play an important role in all areas in Tennessee, but a report recently published by the Partnership for a New American Economy shows how significant their economic contribution is. Statewide, Hispanics account for $2.8 billion of the spending power. They also pay $903 million in federal, state, and local taxes; $459 billion of that amount goes to Social Security and $107 million goes to the Medicare trust fund.

Immigrants are helping to grow housing wealth in some key Tennessee counties as well. Between 2000 and 2010, more than 30,000 immigrants arrived in Davidson County, the area that includes the historic city of Nashville. 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 $3,549 to the value of the average home in the county, or more than $920 million to housing wealth there overall.

3. Foreign Innovators

Immigrants have been integral in helping Tennessee 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 2010, almost 6 percent of business owners in the state were immigrants, despite making up 4.7 percent of the population, a small but significant difference. From 2006 to 2010, immigrant-owned businesses generated more than $850 million in annual income.

  • 5.8%

    Share of business owners who are immigrants

  • $850.6 million

    Annual Business Income Generated by immigrant-owned businesses

Immigrant entrepreneurs have long made significant contribution to Tennessee’s economy. International Paper, one of the state’s largest immigrant founded companies, is a global supplier of printing and industrial products that include many of the paper products for McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway and Starbucks.The company employs 60,000 people worldwide (including over 2,000 employees in Memphis alone), earns $26 billion in revenue annually, and ranks 111th in the 2012 Fortune 500.

After his father’s death, Canadian immigrant Hugh Chisholm and his brother sold papers on the train to help the family make ends meet. Soon after, the brothers started their own train and steamboat newspaper distribution business that quickly grew to control distribution rights on over 5,000 miles of travel routes and employed over 200 people. Chisholm later left this business and began to invest in pulp and paper mills around the East Coast and Canada. In 1898, the mills he founded merged to form the International Paper Company. Under Chisholm’s leadership, the company grew to control 60 percent of the American newsprint market by the time he stepped down as chairman. The International Paper Company continues to be the world’s largest paper manufacturer. Today, it is working with Starbucks to make 100 percent of the coffee chain’s paper cups recyclable by 2015.

4. Immigrants and Tennessee's Workforce

In part because of some of the challenges Tennessee’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 some 2.1 STEM jobs were posted online in Tennessee for every one unemployed STEM worker in the state.

  • 2.1:1

    Ratio of STEM jobs to unemployed STEM workers

Tennessee may also need to recruit immigrants to address a coming shortage of medical professionals. By 2030, the federal government estimates Tennessee could be short about 8,770 registered nurses, leaving 48.5 percent of nursing positions in the state vacant. Immigrants are already playing a role filling labor gaps: in 2012, 16.7 percent of physicians in the state were graduates of foreign medical schools, a population that is overwhelmingly immigrant.

  • 241.4

    Number of Physicians per 100,000 residents

  • 8,770

    Nursing shortage by 2030

  • 48.5%

    Share of RN positions vacant by 2020

  • 16.7%

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

Immigrants in Tennessee are creating jobs through their seasonal and temporary work. According to the US Department of Labor, Tennessee employers were granted certifications to bring in 544 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 Tennessee, the visas authorized in 2013 supported more than 2,500 American jobs.

  • 544

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

  • 2,524

    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 even greater.

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