1. Introduction

Between 2000 and 2011 the foreign-born population in Washington increased by almost 49 percent. About 918,000 people, or 13.4 percent of the state’s population, were born abroad, according to an analysis of 2010 data by the Pew Hispanic Center. This has helped add considerably to the state’s diversity. Today, nearly one in six Washington residents are Latino or Asian. These two groups have become important consumer blocs, contributing millions of dollars to the state’s economy every year.

  • Size of foreign-born population


  • Percent of state’s population that is immigrant


  • Growth in foreign-born population 2000-2010


  • Top countries of origin

    Mexico, Philippines, Vietnam

2. Economic Impact

Between 2008 and 2018, STEM industries are projected to play a key role in US economic growth, adding jobs 73 percent faster than the rest of the economy. For Washington, fixing the US immigration system to make it easier for students trained in America to remain in the country after graduation will be critical: a 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 huge employment boost for Washington, a state where, in 2010, more than one in five STEM workers with an advanced degree were foreigners. In 2009, around 26 percent of the students earning Master’s of PhDs in STEM from the state’s research-intensive universities were foreign-born. And almost half of the students earning engineering PhDs in the state in recent years were also non-citizens.

  • 26.1%

    Share of STEM graduates at state's most research-intensive schools who are foreign-born (2009): 26.1%

  • 47.3%

    Share of Engineering PhDs who were temporary residents (2006-2010): 47.3%

Microsoft, one of Washington State’s largest employers, faces a challenge that is becoming increasingly common for companies across the country: a shortage of qualified STEM workers, particularly those with degrees in computer science and skills in the latest technologies. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in April 2013, Brad Smith, Microsoft’s General Counsel and Executive Vice President for Legal and Corporate Affairs, noted that the company had 3,300 unfilled research & development jobs, a 29 percent increase over the prior year. Combined with IBM, Intel, Oracle and Qualcomm, these five companies alone have over 10,000 high tech job openings in the US. Smith explained, “The reason we have such a shortage in high skilled labor is because we have systematically underinvested, as a country, in the education of our own children.” Smith’s written testimony pointed out one striking example of this underinvestment: of the 42,000 high schools in the country, only 2,250 are certified to teach the Advanced Placement course in computer science.

Jack Chen, a senior immigration policy attorney at Microsoft, says immigration challenges make it difficult for the company to bridge this skills gap with high skilled international talent. He points to the fact that the supply of high-skilled H-1B visas this year was exceeded in the first week of availability, subjecting more than 124,000 applications to a random lottery for only 85,000 available visas. Chen explains, “We’ve recruited and extended offers to some outstanding candidates who won’t be able to start working for us because of the H-1B lottery. When this happens, we lose the productivity our business groups were counting on, and our country loses the investments, tax revenues and economic activity that would have been associated with those employees.” Chen says the extreme backlog in the employment-based green card process is also a critical issue for current employees as well as a potential deterrent for top global talent. “it is tough to play the game without a full roster,” Chen adds.

By making it more difficult for a company like Microsoft to grow, such limits on the access to essential high skilled talent can have a major impact on the US economy—as well as the economy of Washington State. With an annual budget of $9.8 billion devoted to research & development, Microsoft spends more on R&D than any company in the world—and 85 percent of those funds are spent within the US The inability to fill high skilled jobs in the US threatens the company’s ability to continue creating these types of jobs in the US It also results in the loss of the jobs that would have been created as a direct result of those jobs—the so-called “multiplier effect.” According to the recent studies, for every high tech job filled in the US, an additional 4.3 jobs are created. For Microsoft’s current unfilled openings alone, that represents nearly 18,000 jobs going unrealized.
Chen points back to the need to invest in STEM education in the US, particularly in computer science, as a crucial component to solving the skills gap. “We have always been a major job creator in the US, and we want to continue to drive job creation in this country,” Chen says of the situation. “But we need to be able to fill these jobs today in order to create more jobs for tomorrow.”

Immigration Reform = Economic Growth in Washington

Reforming our immigration system will generate millions of dollars and thousands of jobs across Washington. According to Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI), undocumented immigrants who enroll in a legal path to citizenship will generate more than 12,700 jobs and more than $1.1 billion 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 5,700 jobs and add more than $555 million to Gross State Product by 2014.

  • $788 million

    In Washington, creating a path to citizenship and expanding the high-skilled visa program would add a total of more than $788 million to Gross State Product in 2014.

3. Foreign Innovators

Immigrants have been integral in helping Washington grow economically in recent years, especially as the state has struggled, along with the rest of the country, to drive new business and create jobs. In Washington, like so many places around the country, immigrants make outsized contributions as entrepreneurs: in 2010, 15 percent of business owners in Washington State were immigrants, despite making up just over 13 percent of the state’s total population. From 2006 to 2010, immigrant-owned businesses also generated more than $2.4 billion in income for the state each year.

  • 15%

    Share of business owners who are immigrants: 15%

  • $2.4 billion

    Annual business income generated by immigrant owned businesses: $2.4 billion

Immigrant entrepreneurs have long made significant contributions to Washington’s economy. Two of the state’s largest companies, Nordstrom and Weyerhaeuser Company, were founded by immigrants. And Costco Wholesale, which is based in the state, was co-founded by a man whose parents immigrated from Canada. Amazon.com also has an immigrant connection: Jeff Bezos, the firm’s founder, was raised from a young age by his stepfather, a Cuban immigrant. Together, these four firms employ more than 250,000 people today and bring in nearly $180 billion in revenues each year.

4. Immigrants and Washington's Workforce

Current immigration policy has been harmful in recent years to Washington’s economy. Washington’s agriculture industry, which generates $6.4 billion each year in revenue, has experienced a major farm worker shortage in the last two years. Farmers in the state say that the nation’s increasingly rigid immigration laws have encouraged migrant workers to leave the state altogether, fearing prosecution or harassment. Washington’s agriculture industry requires about 150,000 seasonal workers each year, more than any other state besides California, Florida, and Texas. Without foreign agricultural workers, many crops, particularly labor-intensive crops like asparagus, are adversely affected. Just last season, growers were forced to leave 10 percent of the state’s asparagus crop in the fields because they lacked the workers they needed for the harvest. Farmer’s lost a combined $200,000 a day, according to the state’s asparagus farmers’ association.
In part because of the challenges students face remaining in the state after graduation, Washington is short some of the professional workers it needs in critical science, technology, engineering, and math--or 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 more than two STEM jobs were posted online in Washington for every unemployed STEM worker in the state. Fixing this shortage of STEM workers is critical to Washington, which is home to a host of major technology companies, including Microsoft and Amazon.com.

Washington may also need to recruit immigrants to address a coming shortage of medical professionals. By the year 2020, the federal government estimates that the state will be short more than 25,000 registered nurses, leaving more than 42 percent of RN positions vacant due to a lack of qualified workers. Potential physician shortages have also long been a concern in Washington, due to the low number of medical residency programs in the Northwest region. Some policy papers have estimated the state could be short as many as 3,000 to 4,000 physicians within the next 10 to 15 years.

  • 25,451

    Projected nursing shortage by 2020: 25,451

  • 13.6%

    Share of physicians who graduated from foreign medical schools, 2012: 13.6%

  • 42.6%

    Share of nursing positions vacant by 2020: 42.6%

Washington would also benefit if Congress passed the federal DREAM Act, a bill that would legalize the 2.1 million illegal immigrants who came to the country as children. By incentivizing these young people to earn a higher education and allowing them to work legally, the DREAM Act would result in higher earnings and increased spending on products ranging from cars to houses to computers. In Washington, legalizing the 40,000 so-called DREAMers in the state would have an estimated $5.7 billion total economic impact and also create more than 23,000 new jobs by 2030.

  • 40,000

    DREAMers in the state

  • $5.7 billion

    Economic impact of passing the DREAM act

  • 23,321

    Number of jobs created by DREAM act by 2030

5. Spotlight

Ning Cao grew up in China and studied diligently through grade school and college so that she could come to the United States and pursue her graduate degree at Purdue University in 2004. Working towards a PhD in medical physics, Cao began to research the development of new medical devices that can help in cancer treatment. As part of a team led by Babak Ziaie, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering at Purdue, Cao helped create a tiny device that can be implanted in cancer tumors and boost the efficaciousness of radiation and chemotherapy by increasing oxygen levels inside the tumor. The device could be essential to treating certain tumors, like those associated with pancreatic or cervical cancer. Though the device is still in early testing phases, the team has already been granted a patent for the invention and a company was formed based on the new technology.

Cao is now in her first year post-graduation working as a resident in oncology at the University of Washington Medical Center. Medical physics is not a well-developed field in her native China, and she has the best chance of doing groundbreaking research like she did at Purdue here in America. However, as with so many other STEM graduates, her future here is uncertain, despite her accomplishments. She hopes to stay here and find a hospital job and a green card, but she says she worries about how long the application process will take and how prospective employers will view her visa status.

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