by guest contributor Peter Fugiel, Ph.D.

After years of stalemate, it appears likely that immigration will be debated seriously in the U.S. Congress. The current law’s favoring of close relatives rather than employment-related immigration will likely be examined, and eventually changed. Of course, this shift could significantly affect immigration patterns among the states. The 2020 Census tallies will rise for those states that have had large green card applications in the past.

While immigration has had huge effects among the states, internal migration, or domestic migration, has also had a significant effect. Together, the two movement streams have become almost impossible to track. Fortunately, New York’s Empire State Research Center has published unique population movement data that shows how important foreign immigration has been to many of the states.

The top ten states now have half of all the U.S. population. The largest states are now a blend of old industrial growth, recent immigration, and domestic migration. While New York has seen seven million people leave the state in the past 50 years, California has seen foreign immigration bring it two million more residents in last decade alone. Whatever the growth formula, the top ten U.S. states have each attained population of at least ten million residents.

Migration, not natural increase, is the driver of population growth among the majority of states.

The largest states have had the most rapid changes due to immigration and domestic migration. These two components have shown remarkable fluidity over the years. In the last decade, Ohio lost 400,000 people due to domestic migration, while it had minimal immigration. South Carolina, on the other hand, saw its state population increase by 400,000, due both to immigration and more than a 300,000 domestic migration increase. North Carolina gained over 700,000 residents due almost entirely to domestic migration.

Migration, not natural increase, is the driver of population growth among the majority of states. 75% of all immigration occurred in the 20 largest states. Three of the fastest growing states have seen substantial immigration numbers. Texas gained nearly a million residents, Florida over 900,000, and Arizona over 400,000. While a handful of other Southern states benefited from immigration, the region’s strength has been in domestic migration. It is the North where immigration mattered. In fact, 20 mostly Northern states would have lost population had it not been for immigration. Immigration in these Northern states included Illinois (+430,000), Massachusetts (+263,000), and New Jersey (+427,000).

The largest states are now a blend of old industrial growth, recent immigration, and domestic migration.

New population growth centers have emerged. Certain important sub-regional areas are also showing substantial growth. These include the Mountain West: Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado (6+ million); the Pacific Northwest (2 million), and the expanding Sunbelt in the Southeast: South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee (6.5+ million). All of these states have experienced remarkable rank order improvements over the past several decades. All of these improvements have come at the expense of the established Northern states. North Carolina took Massachusetts’ number ten place ranking; while Florida bumped New York out of its third ranking, once rural South Carolina became larger than Connecticut.

Most of the smallest states have grown, too. While rank order changes have been experienced among the top 20 largest states, the rank order among the 30 smallest states has changed more slowly. The range of population among the states ranked in the 30s has been three to five million. Those ranked in the 20s have been between 1 to 3 million, and for those ranked in the 40s, have been half a million to a million and a half. Most of our smallest states have added at least a half million residents in the past two decades. Utah is an exception, having gained a million people in only 20 years. Only the ten smallest states have grown very slowly; these ten states combined have added fewer than 1.3 million people.

New immigration law favors economic growth, not communal identity. In this Congress, there has been substantial progress made to change immigration law by encouraging industry and trade skills over national origin and close family ties. But the small states, with their tiny immigrant populations, have been less interested in the proposed changes, other than to fix border programs. Immigration and its legal reform have never been a small state issue. It just may be that these states were never asked to see immigration as a productivity issue.

There may be some compromise by putting an end to easy residency requirements, and to stop the buildup of the huge illegal residency in many urban and Latino areas. (It is thought that long green card waits can lead to illegal immigration.)

When you see the gigantic numbers that immigration adds to state populations over time, a new approach to U.S. economic growth may well be needed. It was a great and good thing to foster family unification by providing residency to family members first. It may now be time to balance family goals with more explicit economic ones. That way, both sides win: the green card mess is reformed and additional immigration goals are admitted.

About the Author

Peter Fugiel, Ph.D., a housing and public finance consultant in Chicago, is a frequent contributor to His firm, PMN Community Services, provides research services to Chicago-area communities based on platform that combines real estate market analysis with municipal bond research.

PMN Community Services recently launched its public finance/housing research website, at

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