The Rust Belt Needs Legal Immigration

President Trump supports a plan that would halve the number of newcomers—and cut off the Midwest’s “demographic lifeline.”

Graffiti, along with the figure of a steelworker, is painted on the side of Carrie Furnace blast furnaces in Rankin, Pennsylvania.
A painted figure of a steelworker on the side of Carrie Furnace blast furnaces in Rankin, Pennsylvania (Dominick Reuter / Getty Images)

The Rust Belt states that tipped the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump could be among the biggest losers from the proposed reductions in legal immigration that he has endorsed, according to a new study released Monday.

The study, from the nonpartisan Chicago Council on Global Affairs, concludes that immigration has been “a demographic lifeline” that has helped several Midwestern cities partially reverse decades of population loss among native-born residents.

“For the cities of the Midwest, restricting current immigration levels is the last thing they need: an unnecessary tourniquet applied to a precious supply of new regional residents and workers,” reads the report, written by demographer Rob Paral, a non-resident fellow at the council.

Trump recently endorsed legislation from Republican senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia that would cut legal immigration in half. Some congressional Republicans are hoping to attach that bill to any legislation providing legal status for the undocumented young people known as “Dreamers,” who had been shielded from deportation by the deferred-action program Trump recently revoked. Democrats, however, would strongly resist any such attempt.

Earlier studies by Paral have documented how much Midwestern cities of all sizes now rely on immigrants to offset the loss of native-born Americans in their prime working years. In the new study, he documents the critical role immigration has played in driving the trajectory of overall population growth and decline in the largest Midwest cities since the turn of the 20th century.

This latest research reinforces the political message of Paral’s earlier work: It shows that a broad range of communities across the Midwest is relying on immigration to stabilize their populations and revive their economies. That could make it tougher for Republicans from the region to support the large reductions Cotton, Perdue, and Trump are seeking. “There’s no question that immigration is benefiting a lot of cities, including small cities,” Paral told me. “I don’t think it’s just big-city Democratic mayors who support [legal immigration].”

Immigration, as Paral demonstrates, was central to the rapid growth of cities from Akron and Grand Rapids to Detroit and Chicago through the first decades of the 20th century. “Cities of the American Midwest were largely built by immigration,” he writes. “Immigrants and their children were a key component of the population growth these cities experienced.”

In 1920, foreign-born residents accounted for nearly one-third of the population in Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit. They also accounted for nearly one-fourth in Milwaukee and Minneapolis. Looking cumulatively at 13 large cities across the region, Paral calculated that immigrants accounted for about one-fourth of their entire population in 1920, with the children of immigrants contributing nearly another two-fifths of the total.

But for decades after the United States passed a restrictive immigration law in 1924, new arrivals were virtually shut out, and the foreign-born share of the population across the region rapidly declined. By 1950, immigrants provided only about one-sixth of the population in Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland—roughly half their level in 1920—and represented only about one in 10 residents in Milwaukee and Minneapolis, less than half their level 30 years earlier.

Initially, the big Midwestern cities continued to grow despite the squeeze on immigration, as they attracted more whites from rural areas and a steady flow of African Americans heading north during the Great Migration. But after about 1950, those spigots also tightened, and the region’s population spiraled into sustained decline. “The latter half of the [20th] century ushered in suburbanization, de-industrialization, and migration from the Northeastern and Midwestern states to Southern and Western parts of the country,” Paral writes. “The loss of immigration compounded the effects of these trends that sapped population from Midwestern cities.” The 13 large cities Paral tracked lost nearly 1 million residents combined from 1950 through 1970.

Since then, the big Midwestern cities, buffeted by deindustrialization and other economic storms, have struggled to maintain their native-born populations. Of the 13, all but Omaha suffered losses in their native-born populations from 1970 through the five-year stretch between 2011 and 2015, the most recent span covered by the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Almost without exception, those native-born losses have been substantial. Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Milwaukee each lost about one-fifth of their native-born population over that period, Paral calculated. Toledo, Akron, and Chicago each lost a little over one-fourth; Cincinnati just over one-third; and Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis about half.

But since the federal 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act reopened the pathway to mass immigration, many of these cities have once again increased their foreign-born populations. In no case has that been enough to completely offset the loss of native-born residents, but it’s allowed many of the larger Midwestern cities to ameliorate the decline and fortify their population base.

Since 1970, Paral reports, Chicago has added nearly 200,000 foreign-born residents; Minneapolis and St. Paul just over 40,000; Kansas City 25,000; and Milwaukee about 20,000. From a low of 662,000 people in 1990, the foreign-born population across all 13 cities has recovered to 958,000. That’s despite a slowdown of new arrivals over the past decade or so, as undocumented immigration has plummeted nationwide and more new legal immigrants have migrated toward Southern and Western states.

Indeed, attracting immigrants has become a central economic-development strategy for many Midwest cities. Christina Pope, a senior regional manager for Welcoming America, a group that supports programs to help immigrants assimilate, said she now works with 60 local governments and non-profits in a 10-state region across the Midwest and mid-Atlantic. “The movement really is widespread,” she told me. “Just in the past year, we have about doubled membership in the Midwest.”

The areas with active programs to attract and assimilate immigrants range from large population centers such as Chicago, Minneapolis, and Columbus; to mid-sized cities like Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Akron, Toledo, and Dayton; to smaller places such as Battle Creek, Michigan, and Winona, Minnesota. Many of them are holding events this week to celebrate links between immigrant and native-born communities as part of the national Welcoming Week effort that is sponsoring hundreds of such gatherings. “There really is a commitment on the local level from even these smaller municipalities,” Pope said.

Politically, the Midwest could be a pivotal region in the approaching debate over legal immigration. Plans for reduction are likely to face substantial resistance from not only Democrats, but also from Republicans in the Northeast and West Coast states that have traditionally served as large-scale immigrant destinations.

Conversely, restrictions could find substantial support from Republicans in Southern, Plains, and Mountain West states that have no tradition of large-scale immigration and only have small immigrant populations even today. (As Paral writes, “voices against immigration have been raised by local residents of areas where few immigrants live and, indeed, where the general population may be in numeric decline.”)

That alignment means the key to whether reductions in legal immigration gain any momentum in Congress may be whether Midwestern Republicans join the region’s Democrats in resisting cuts, or lock arms with most other Republicans from states between the coasts to support them. The complicating factor is that, just as on the drive to repeal the Affordable Care Act, any Midwest Republicans pushing to curb legal immigration could face considerable resistance from local GOP officials who see clear benefits in the existing policy.

“You can find exceptions to this, but there’s a kind of a tolerance in the Midwest that you don’t see elsewhere,” Paral told me. “You can look at some of the Southern states that passed … draconian local ordinances against immigrants, but as a general pattern you don’t have those anti-immigrant policies here.”