Immigration boosts C-U, Midwest populations
Xuequing Chen moved to Champaign almost seven years ago after a cousin talked her into buying the Peking Garden restaurant.
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The Chinese immigrant had lived in New York and Washington, D.C., for six years, but the move to the Midwest has been a good one for Chen, her husband and their two children.
Business is good, especially when the University of Illinois is in session. The community has lots of other Asians, she said, and "people are friendly." Out east, everyone is always in a hurry; here, if you ask someone where the bus stop is, he'll offer to take you there, she said.
"I like United States people," Chen said Wednesday.
Chen is part of an immigration wave that has fueled growth in Champaign-Urbana and across the Midwest, according to a new report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Here is a copy of the report.
In Champaign County, almost half the population growth since 2000 can be attributed to immigrants, who now make up 12.3 percent of the population, according to the report.
In contrast to protests out west over the thousands of immigrant children who crossed the U.S. border illegally, the report takes a decidedly positive approach to immigration. It calls the influx of 1 million immigrants over the past decade a "demographic lifeline" for the Midwest, aiding economic growth and contributing to the tax base.
Over the past 50 years, the Midwest's population has been growing more slowly than the national average, but immigration has helped reverse this trend. The number of native-born persons in Midwestern metropolitan areas grew by only 3.3 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the number of immigrants grew by 27 percent, the report said.
While Champaign's native-born population grew by 6.7 percent from 2000 to 2010, the immigrant population grew by almost 70 percent. The county now has the third-largest immigrant population in the state, after Chicago and Rockford, and the highest percentage of foreign-born residents outside the Chicago area.
The report said the native population is aging, Baby Boomers are moving into retirement, and immigration helps bring in young workers to support them.
The number of native-born Midwesterners in the 35-to-44-year-old age group — prime working and taxpaying years — fell by 1.4 million between 2000 and 2010, the report said. But the arrival of more than 250,000 immigrants from the same group staved off a more dramatic decline.
Among that age group in Champaign County, the number of native-born residents dropped by 5,250, or about 23 percent, from 2000 to 2010; meanwhile, the number of immigrants rose 1,779, or 88.8 percent.
"The Midwest has a lot of cities that are just bleeding population, so it needs to think about wisely using immigration to replenish its workforce," said Rob Paral, lead author of the study, which was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust.
Though she'd like to examine the numbers further, Champaign city planner Lacey Rains Lowe said they reflect the "reality on the ground."
Just run down the list of restaurants, bakeries and groceries in Champaign-Urbana: Pekara Bakery, the Bread Company, World Harvest grocery, Sushi Kame and a host of other ethnic food shops are owned by immigrants from Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.
"Our population has been greatly diversifying in the last 10 years or 20 years," Lowe said, with particular growth in the Asian and Hispanic populations.
Some of that can be attributed to growth in the UI's international enrollment. The campus has 9,400 international students from 115 countries, including almost 5,000 undergraduates, making up 25 percent of the student body, double the percentage of a decade ago.
But it's not just on campus, Lowe said. "We've got a lot of families here as well."
Lowe believes health professionals, high-tech employees, food-service workers and others help relatives move here and find jobs because "we have so many great resources here and so many employment opportunities here, from manufacturing jobs all the way up to the most high-skilled, high-tech jobs," she said.
Champaign-Urbana is a "fairly open-minded" and diverse community, so "if you're a person coming from somewhere else, you're not going to stick out like a sore thumb."
As a high-tech college town, Champaign is a "magnet" for students and has lots of skilled jobs available, Paral said. That also means plenty of low-skilled jobs, such as food-service and hotel workers and migrant workers, he said.
Businessman Habeeb Habeeb, a Lebanese immigrant who has lived in Illinois since 1973 and Champaign-Urbana since 1985, said immigration can be a huge boost for the local economy.
"If you're describing immigration to the general public, the first thing they think is people jumping across the border, kids jumping across the border," Habeeb said. "The other side of immigration is people who are well-qualified who would love to add the value to the community they are in," from agricultural workers to highly paid tech workers, he said.
Many businesses, including Carle and the UI Research Park, struggle to attract qualified employees, Habeeb said. Carle has several hundred jobs open, and the companies in the research park have 150 jobs waiting to be filled, according to park Director Laura Frerichs.
Without the weather of California, Florida and North Carolina, Champaign-Urbana struggles to compete for employees, especially in the high-tech sector, Habeeb said.
"Everybody can be helped by filling these jobs — business and public sector, right and left, Republican and Democrat, small business and large business," he said.
"If it's well thought-out, and if we're talking about bringing qualified people to take on qualified jobs, that would be great for economic development."
Lowe said Champaign and other medium-sized cities are projected to see continued population growth, and she sees no evidence that immigration trends will turn around.
"If anything, it's continuing and potentially increasing," she said.
|Percent of total||8.10%||12.30%|
|City||Population||Foreign-born residents||Percentage of total|
Source: “Growing the Heartland” report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs