Illinois immigrants get the job done

Immigrants make up more than 14 percent of state population, with almost half naturalized U.S. citizens

 Protesters march in Chicago on May Day 2016. (Shutterstock/Marie Kanger Born)

Protesters march in Chicago on May Day 2016. (Shutterstock/Marie Kanger Born)

By Ted Cox

A new nationwide study finds that immigrants in Illinois are critical to the state’s culture and economy, with one in seven residents being an immigrant, and with immigrants contributing $15 billion in taxes and spending $40 billion in the state.

Immigrants in Illinois” is a fact sheet released earlier this month by the American Immigration Council as part of a nationwide, state-by-state look at U.S. immigrants.

It finds that of the one in seven Illinois residents who are immigrants, almost half, 48.2 percent, are naturalized U.S. citizens, and almost three-quarters speak English fluently.

More than one in five Chicago-area businesses are owned by immigrants, and statewide immigrant entrepreneurs generated $2.5 billion in 2015. Across Illinois, immigrants pay $9.8 billion in federal taxes and $5.2 billion in state and local taxes, while spending $40.1 billion on the state economy.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker has emphasized the impact immigrants have on the state economy. Republican incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner has said he welcomes legal immigrants, but has resisted making Illinois a so-called sanctuary state for undocumented immigrants. He has blamed illegal immigrants for contributing to the factors that cause gun violence. Immigration groups have charged Rauner with flip-flopping on the issue, pointing out he signed the Trust Act last year, but vetoed other immigration reforms this year as the Nov. 6 election loomed.

In addition to the more than 14 percent of the state population made up of first-generation immigrants, one in eight is the native-born child of at least one first-generation immigrant, meaning a quarter of the state is either a first- or second-generation immigrant.

As of 2015, Illinois was home to 870,770 women, 863,196 men, and 92,190 children who were immigrants, with 880,242 immigrants, or 48.2 percent, naturalized and an additional 326,135 immigrants eligible to become U.S. citizens that year.

According to the study, the top countries of origin for immigrants were Mexico (38.2 percent), India (8.1 percent), Poland (7 percent), the Philippines (5 percent), and China (4.3 percent).

Their education levels were polarized, however, with almost one in three immigrants holding a college diploma — close to the statewide average of 33.6 percent — but with more than a quarter failing to complete high school or its equivalent, well above the state average of 7.7 percent.

The study estimated that, as of 2014, there were 450,000 undocumented immigrants living in the state, constituting almost a quarter of the immigration population and 3.5 percent of the overall Illinois population. It found that 817,066 people, 343,352 of them native-born U.S. citizens, had lived with at least one undocumented immigrant at some point between 2010 and 2014.

Some 1.2 million immigrants are employed in the state, or about 18 percent of the Illinois workforce, with their leading fields being manufacturing, health care and social assistance, food and other service industries, and retail sales. An estimated 5 percent of the state workforce consists of undocumented immigrants.

Even so, they contributed $760 million in state and local taxes, which would have become more than $900 million if they held legal status.

Illinois immigrants are especially intrepid as entrepreneurs, with almost 120,000 immigrant business owners making up 21.3 percent of all self-employed Illinoisans. More than one in five business owners in Chicago and the suburbs are immigrants, as are 6.5 percent of business owners in the so-called Metro East area near St. Louis.