A project of the Partnership for a New American Economy
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 72 percent, well more than double the national average, and reached nearly 275,000 people in 2011, according to analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Size of foreign-born population
Percent of state’s population that is immigrant
Growth in foreign-born population 2000-2010
Top countries of origin
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.
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 2009 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Decrease in number of foreign-born advanced degree holders working in STEM fields: 35% between 2000 and 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 2020, the federal government has estimated the state will lack more than 6,550 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.
Projected nurse shortage by 2020: 6,551
Share of nursing positions vacant by 2020: 13.3%
Share of physicians who graduated from foreign medical schools, 2012: 18.4%
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.
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.