1. Introduction

Up until the 1940s, a much larger percentage of Wisconsin’s population was foreign-born than the broader United States. In more recent years, though the foreign-born have made up a relatively small percentage of the population, Wisconsin’s immigrant population has grown rapidly: over the past decade, the number of immigrants in Wisconsin grew by 40 percent, well more than double the national average, and reached nearly 270,000 people in 2013, according to data from the American Community Survey.

  • 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, Germany

Immigrants in Wisconsin have also added to the state’s diversity. Today, more than one in three foreign-born residents of Wisconsin are originally from Mexico, the most common country of origin for the state’s immigrants. Wisconsin is also home to one of the largest populations of Hmong refugees in the broader United States—a group numbering close to 50,000 people.

The growing number of foreign-born citizens in Wisconsin will also cause a demographic shift that has the potential to drastically shift the electoral map. According to a study by the Partnership for a New American Economy, the foreign-born Hispanic and Asian populations in particular could cause the the electoral makeup of 18 key states to change substantively. In Wisconsin, there are a total of 92,000 unregistered Asian and Latino voters. Between 2012 and 2016 there will be a total of 42,495 newly eligible Hispanic and Asian voters, by 2020 that number is expected to grow to 95,820. In a high impact scenario, this demographic change could result in 28,440 additional democratic voters in 2016 and 40,284 by 2020

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 Wisconsin, 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 2013, more than one in three students earning Masters or PhD degrees in STEM from the state’s research-intensive universities were foreign-born. Almost three out of every five students earning engineering PhDs in the state in recent years were also non-citizens.

  • 34.7%

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

  • 58.1%

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

Foreign-born students create jobs for Wisconsin 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 graduate 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. That translates into a huge employment boost for Wisconsin, a state where, in 2010, almost one in every eight STEM workers with an advanced degree was a foreigner. By 2020, Wisconsin will need to fill 120,300 new STEM jobs and immigrants will play a key role in occupying these positions and continuing to promote economic growth.

  • 18.5%

    Share of STEM workers with advanced degrees born abroad

Wisconsin’s immigrants also contribute to the state’s economic growth and competitiveness by earning patents on cutting-edge research and products. In 2011, more than 71 percent of patents awarded to the University of Wisconsin had at least one foreign-born inventor. Moreover, more than half of Wisconsin’s patents had a foreign-born inventor who was a student, postdoctoral fellow, or researcher. Those patents do not just represent great ideas. Often, they are licensed to existing companies or used as foundations for new ones, creating American jobs and revenue in the process.

  • 71%

    Share of UW System patents with at least one foreign-born inventor

  • 51%

    Share of those inventors who were students, postdoctoral fellows, or researchers, groups with no clear path to stay in America after graduation

  • $57 million

    UW System licensing/royalty revenue from patents (2009)

Immigration Reform = Economic Growth in Wisconsin

Reforming our immigration system will generate millions of dollars and thousands of jobs across Wisconsin. According to Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI), undocumented immigrants who enroll in a legal path to citizenship will generate more than 6,800 jobs and more than $547 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 Wisconsin between 2010 and 2013 will translate into 5,433 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 3,100 jobs and add more than $267 million to Gross State Product by 2014.

  • $381 million

    In Wisconsin, creating a path to citizenship and expanding the high-skilled visa program would add a total of more than $381 million to Gross State Product in 2014

Hispanics play an important role in all areas in Wisconsin, but a report recently published by the Partnership for a New American Economy shows how significant their economic contribution is. Statewide, Hispanics account for $3.1 billion of the spending power. They also pay $1 billion in federal, state, and local taxes; $511 million of that amount goes to Social Security and $120 million goes to the Medicare trust fund.

Immigrants are helping to grow housing wealth in some key Wisconsin counties, as well. Between 2000 and 2010, more than 8,400 immigrants arrived in Dane County, the area that includes the cities of Madison and Fitchburg. By moving into neighborhoods formerly in decline, these immigrants played a role adding to the housing wealth of the neighborhood’s residents. That influx of immigrants added $975 to the value of the average home in the county, or more than $198 million to housing wealth there overall.

3. Foreign Innovators

Immigrants have been integral in helping Wisconsin 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. Over the past 30 years, the single biggest driving force behind net job creation in the US has been new business generation. And in Wisconsin, immigrants have made substantial contributions. More than 10,300 businesses in Wisconsin are currently owned by immigrants. From 2006 to 2010, those businesses brought in an average of almost $600 million in business income each year, or 4.6 percent of the state total.

  • 10,342

    Number of businesses in Wisconsin owned by immigrants

  • $589 million

    Annual business income generated by immigrant-owned businesses

Immigrant entrepreneurs have long made significant contributions to Wisconsin’s economic success story. Kohl’s, the Wisconsin-based retail giant, was founded by a Polish immigrant. And four other Fortune 500 firms based in the state—car parts manufacturer Oshkosh, American Family Mutual Insurance, Harley-Davidson, and the staffing firm Manpower—had at least one founder who was the child of someone who immigrated to America. Together, these five companies employ more than 200,000 people today and bring in almost $60 billion in annual revenues.

4. Immigrants and Wisconsin's Workforce

Thanks in part to some of the challenges students face remaining in the state after graduation, Wisconsin is 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, 2.2 STEM jobs were posted online in Wisconsin for every one unemployed STEM worker in the state. A declining share of immigrants in the state’s STEM workforce from 2000 to 2010 likely only exacerbated these shortages.

  • 2.2:1

    Ratio of STEM jobs to unemployed STEM workers

  • 35%

    Decrease in number of foreign-born advanced degree holders working in STEM fields (2000-2010)

Immigrants in the state also currently play a vital role staffing Wisconsin’s dairy industry, a sector that contributes as much as $26.5 billion to The Badger State’s economy each year. According to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, immigrants make up more than 40 percent of Wisconsin’s dairy farm workforce. And such farm workers are crucial to sustaining jobs: The US Department of Agriculture estimates that for every one on-farm job, more than three additional jobs are supported that could not exist otherwise, often in better-paying industries like manufacturing, packaging, and transportation. Despite these benefits, however, the US currently lacks a temporary visa for farm workers that is easily accessible—and financially feasible—for many small and medium-sized farms. That leaves Wisconsin, like many states, vulnerable to future labor shortages.

Wisconsin may also need to recruit immigrants to address a coming shortage of medical professionals. According to estimates by The Wisconsin Hospital Association, the state could be short 3,312 of the 15,154 physicians it will need to keep up with demand by 2030. By 2030, the federal government has estimated the state will lack more than 10,530 registered nurses, leaving more than 13 percent of RN positions in the state vacant. Such shortages could have a major economic impact on Wisconsin communities. The Wisconsin Hospital Association estimates that a shortage of just 2,000 primary care doctors could cause Wisconsin to miss out on roughly 45,000 related medical jobs and $5 billion worth of GDP.

  • 22%

    Projected physician shortage by 2030 = 3,312

  • 10,530

    Projected nurse shortage by 2030

  • 13.3%

    Share of nursing positions vacant by 2020

  • 18.4%

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

Immigrants in Wisconsin are also helping to create jobs in the state through seasonal and temporary work. Between 1990 and 2010, Wisconsin's supply of less-skilled workers born in the U.S. also dropped by 169,997. Over that same period, the state's foreign-born, less-skilled labor force grew by 56,081, leaving a difference of 113,916 openings that immigrants could be filling. According to the US Department of Labor, Wisconsin employers were granted certifications to bring in almost 300 workers on H-2B visas in fiscal year 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 Wisconsin the 289 visas authorized in FY 2013 supported 1,341 American jobs.

5. Spotlight

Ankit Agarwal, a former postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and biochemical engineer by training, originally moved to the US in 2002 to pursue his PhD. While doing his postdoctoral work at Wisconsin, Agarwal became concerned about the millions of patients who seek hospital treatment in America each year for chronic wounds or slow-healing ulcers. Knowing that about one in five of those patients develop painful infections each year, Agarwal worked with other scientists at the university to develop a thin film of silver nanoparticles that could be used to make the artificial skin used in their treatment resistant to bacteria. The technology was considered so promising that in 2009 Agarwal was one of 13 postdocs awarded a prestigious fellowship from the Kauffman Foundation for researchers working on technologies that could turn into high-potential startups within the next five years.

Nonetheless, Agarwal encountered had to overcome significant hurdles navigating the immigration system. The Madison-based company he founded to commercialize his technology, Imbed Biosciences, almost did not come to be because of the barriers Agarwal faced from the US immigration system. After starting Imbed in 2010, Agarwal needed a green card to be able to work at his startup full time and grow the firm into a successful venture. He considered applying for an EB2 “exceptional ability” visa, which is often within the reach of someone in his position, but the wait for an Indian national to get such a green card was five years or longer. “In an industry like biotechnology that moves rather quickly,” Agarwal says, “waiting that long was out of the question.”

Agarwal decided to apply for the much more difficult-to-obtain “extraordinary ability” visa, which would allow him to bypass the backlog. He was repeatedly advised against it: the first three lawyers Agarwal consulted either refused to take his case or told him they were pessimistic about its success. Once he found a lawyer eager to work with him, Agarwal says he and his wife had to make major sacrifices just to pay the “overwhelming” legal and application fees most immigrants face when they file such applications – an expense that set them back about $12,000. To pay, the Agarwals drained their savings and took out high-interest credit card loans.

However, Agarwal was fortunate: after months of worrying about his application, his green card was approved late last year. “I felt so encouraged and lucky to have this experience,” Agarwal says, “but it doesn’t make sense to me that our immigration system makes it far too difficult for immigrants like myself to succeed.” Today, Imbed is creating well-paid, high-tech jobs for Wisconsin residents. It also recently received an almost $330,000 funding grant from The National Institutes of Health to continue its research.

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