Last year was the first time since before the year 2000 that more people moved to Fort Wayne from elsewhere in the U.S. than moved away from the Allen County city.
Still, Allen County’s population has ballooned from about 332,000 in 1990 to an estimated 373,000 in 2017. Its unemployment rate hasn’t been above 5 percent in three years and its per capita income is the 16th highest among Indiana’s 92 counties.
Research and local economic development experts indicate immigration has been key to the area’s growth, and will be critical to Indiana’s economic future.
Emily Wornell, a rural sociologist and demographer with the Rural Policy Research Institute, is preparing to release research late this summer focusing on the social and economic impact of immigration in Indiana. Her research indicates that if Indiana wants to create jobs, “attracting more immigrants might be the best way to do that.”
She referenced multiple commonly held beliefs about immigration that she called “patently untrue,” based on her findings.
For one thing, immigrants tend to contribute more to the system than they take, Wornell said.
“When immigrants are eligible for aid” — and many aren’t, she added — “they tend to take less than they are eligible for, and less than native-born residents take, and for a shorter amount of time,” Wornell said.
Certain groups of immigrants will never be eligible for aid like Social Security and SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, but they still pay taxes that fund those systems, she said. One such group, immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, contributed more than $92 million in state and local taxes to Indiana’s economy in 2014, Wornell said.
“They actually are paying into the system at pretty significant rates, with the understanding that they’re never going to get anything back,” she said.
Two, she said immigrants tend to take different jobs than native-born residents do.
Their presence does depress wages slightly for native-born Hoosiers who haven’t finished high school, Wornell said — “and by slightly, I mean a couple of cents. It’s a very tiny percentage.”
Based on anecdotal evidence, she believes that’s because immigrants tend to take jobs in agriculture, housekeeping and cooking. “Most people, if they have an option, it’s not the kind of work they want to do,” Wornell said. Native-born residents of comparable education tend instead to work jobs in trucking, retail and janitorial services.
Competition between immigrants and native-born residents at the other end of the education spectrum probably isn’t common, she added, because of the additional cost and legal effort the company must take on to hire an immigrant. “It’s a huge bureaucratic headache. ... When you’ve got a native-born American that could jump into that job, it’s unlikely that would happen.”
What’s key for Indiana, though, is the economic growth that comes with immigration, Wornell said.
She said immigrants tend to foster job creation more than native-born residents. On average, 1.2 jobs are created for every immigrant, she has found.
Part of that’s because more immigrants means more people to buy goods and services. But another part, Wornell said, is due to immigrants starting and growing their own businesses.
“We know that immigrants tend to be an incredibly entrepreneurial group,” Wornell said. They launch new businesses at higher rates than native-born Hoosiers, and their children — “second-generation” immigrants, the first generation of their family to be born in the U.S. — are “some of the most economically active” people in the country.
According to Wornell, Indiana is considered a new immigrant destination because immigration from foreign countries has grown significantly over the last 30 years. Many immigrants, she said, are heading to rural communities, too.
From 1990-2010, the number of immigrants grew significantly in 16 rural counties, including Cass, Delaware, Fountain, Madison, Rush and Tipton. But at the same time — like in Allen County — the number of native-born residents in those counties dropped, through either natural decrease or outbound migration to other counties.
“The demographic makeup of those counties is shifting dramatically,” Wornell said. “Attracting immigration, and maintaining immigration, is likely the best opportunity that these counties have for population growth in the foreseeable future.”
Immigrants’ U.S.-born children, in particular, “are the folks you really want to keep in your community,” Wornell said. “These towns need to think about how to make that happen.”
Leaders in Fort Wayne have been doing just that for decades now. The city is home to the world’s largest Burmese population outside the country of Myanmar, formerly called Burma. Multiple organizations exist in Allen County to help immigrants assimilate and find jobs.
“We had a record year last year for job creation and investment,” Fort Wayne economic development leader Ellen Cutter said. “But in order to keep that growth going, we know that we need workers and families to locate here.”
Cutter is director of strategy, research and marketing for Greater Fort Wayne Inc., an economic development alliance focused on the metro area. Welcoming immigrant workers is particularly important, she said, because of Fort Wayne’s longtime struggles keeping native-born residents from leaving.
But, like Wornell, she referenced the economic growth that comes from immigrants themselves.
“We know that national statistics tell us immigrants are much more likely to start businesses, and that small businesses are the engine for job growth,” Cutter said.
“With our unemployment rate being so low, with our population rate lagging behind other communities ... we need to create the conditions to allow every man, woman and child that wants to be a part of our community to feel welcome.”