A recent study released by Ball State University painted a vastly different picture of immigration, both legal and illegal, that defied common perceptions and rhetoric, functioning as a net positive for the Hoosier state.

Earlier this year Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research released a study dubbed Fiscal, Economic, and Social Effects of Immigration in the Hoosier State. That study, authored by Research Assistant Professor Emily Wornell and the school’s Miller College of Business Director Michael Hicks, examined the implications of foreign immigration to Indiana, including effects on education, wages, and demographics.

The study, concluded its authors, found that immigration to Indiana from foreign countries amounted to an “important source of fiscal, economic, and demographic health for Indiana’s future,” regardless of whether the immigrants were here legally.

According to Wornell, the study was prompted by the national conversation surrounding immigration, and she concluded that curtailing immigration would create negative consequences in Indiana due to its often-underestimated impact on the state’s population at a time when many Hoosier communities are experiencing a population decline.

“I think that one of the kind of important aspects of this is looking at what is the potential impact on Indiana and Indiana counties and communities if we do see a drastic reduction in immigration because of a change of national-level policies. By and large, what we would expect is that the impact on Indiana would be negative … You have these counties that are already declining. They would be declining in population, and that represents a shrinking tax base. Part of the national conversation or belief is that folks who are not authorized to be in the country are really taking more out of the social safety net system than they are putting in. That’s not actually what we find.”

In providing historical context, the study noted that foreign immigration to Indiana was at its highest in 1860, primarily with immigrants coming from Europe and constituting 8.8 percent of Indiana’s population. But then immigration to the state slowed until 1990 and then it began to accelerate again, predominantly driven first by an influx of immigrants from Europe. But then trends changed, and by about 2000 Latin American immigrants constituted almost 70 percent of the state’s immigrant population. Presently, immigrants constitute the largest single demographic of foreign transplants to Indiana at 31.6 percent. But, noted Wornell, immigration rates are still nowhere near to what they were in the mid-1800s.

The transition, said Wornell, was driven by the militarization of the border between the United States and Mexico. Before that, immigrants from Latin America only would come to the United States seasonally for work before returning to their home country. But, the closing of the border made return trips much more difficult.

“When the border was militarized, and it was a lot more difficult to get across the border. It became much much more risky for people to go home and then to come back,” said Wornell. “So people started staying in the United States for a lot longer and started bringing their families.”

Net positives?

For their study, Hicks and Wornell examined 19 Hoosier counties in order to understand how immigration affected the areas’ population trends.

They found that between 1990 and 2017, 17 of those counties experienced “total population loss,” while at the same time increases in immigration populations occurred. Two other counties would have had a total population loss if it weren’t for immigration. The study’s authors concluded, “Statewide, a full 25 percent of population growth Indiana experienced between 2000 and 2015 was due to increasing immigration.”

Along with basic population trends, the study also delved into overall trends within the immigrant populations settling in Indiana. In terms of the educational spectrum, the study found that “not only are immigrants in Indiana better educated than the state’s incumbent population, their rates of educational attainment are increasing while rates remain relatively static for native-born Hoosiers.”

Data gathered for the study indicated immigrants are concentrated heavily at the lower end of the educational spectrum but also at the highest end. In 2016, about 11 percent of Indiana’s native population and 30 percent of the foreign-born population had less than a high school diploma. But, in that same year, about 24 percent of the native-born population possessed a college degree or more, while 30 percent of the foreign-born population possessed the same credentials. About half of the degrees for immigrants, 15.8 percent, were graduate degrees, while 8.5 percent of native Hoosiers’ degrees were from graduate school.

It’s the number of immigrants possessing more than a high school education, said Wornell, that people may find shocking. More so, she said educational attainment of immigrants tends to increase at a faster rate than with the native population of Indiana. For immigrants who came to the country prior to 2010, about 32 percent possessed less than a high school degree. Similarly, those who came before 2010 possessed high school degrees at a rate of 24 percent and college degrees at a rate of 28 percent.

The study also took into account immigration’s effects on the labor market of Indiana.

Wornell and Hicks concluded that immigration most affected the wages of new hires between 2002 and 2016, and that was primarily concentrated on workers possessing less than or a high school degree. The increased competition of immigration created declines of $48 and $69 for a month’s pay. However, this trend disappeared for incumbent workers whose place of employment remained the same for 90 days.

For better-educated workers, the study found that labor demand wages increased from immigration. For workers possessing some college, a bachelor’s degree or higher, wages increased during that time period between $278 and $414 for a month of pay.

“What we found overall is there is some impact on wages due to immigration,” said Wornell. “It’s a very small impact negative, fairly significant impact positive, but it all washes out after 90 days. So it’s a very short-term impact. These results are very similar to what other researchers have looked at on the national level.”