Immigrant populations most visible in rural Indiana

By Emily J. Wornell

In an era of increasingly divisive political rhetoric, it can be difficult to wade through the talking points and form our own opinion based on facts. One such politically fraught topic is immigration. While I don’t assume to have the correct answer to this question, as a sociologist and demographer, I do think the basic data and population trends in Indiana tell an important story.

From 2000-15, Indiana gained a little more than 488,000 residents. Nearly 27 percent of this gain, about 130,000 individuals, was an increase in the foreign-born population. Put simply, more than a fourth of Indiana’s population growth during this 15-year period was due to immigration. Although this is somewhat less than the immigrant contribution to the national growth rate — 30 percent during the same time period — it still represents a significant contribution to Indiana’s economic, social and demographic future.

Indiana’s immigrant population has been increasing steadily and rapidly since the early 1990s, but this infusion of population has not been equally distributed across the state. Unsurprisingly, urban areas — and Indianapolis in particular — attract the most immigrants. In 2015, a quarter of all foreign-born Hoosiers lived in Indianapolis, and the city’s immigrant population was just under 9 percent of its total.

Although high concentrations of immigrants are found in large cities around the state, many small cities and rural counties are also grappling with a changing demographic landscape. Increased immigrant populations may be most visible and felt most keenly in rural Indiana.

From 1990-2015, 14 Indiana counties saw immigrant population increases while their total populations declined. Twelve of these counties were classified as rural by Purdue Extension. Additionally, two other counties classified as rural — Cass and Clinton — were saved from population loss only because of their increasing immigrant population.

In all of these areas, increases in the foreign-born population with simultaneous declines in the native-born population means the demographic composition of these counties — and their communities — is changing. But the real question is, what does this change mean to these communities and Indiana as a whole?

Although many questions remain regarding the economic and social effect of immigration in Indiana — research is ongoing — if the trends continue, immigrants may represent the greatest possibility for population growth or stability that many of these counties are likely to see in the near future. This is particularly true in rural counties, which have been dogged by population loss for decades.

On a very basic level, understanding how the demographic characteristics of a community or county are changing needs to be in incorporated into development plans, particularly if places want to retain the children of their new immigrant residents. Where the second generation settles is important for a number of reasons, including their significant contribution to the economy and the potential for having young, growing families in rural communities that are trending toward the elderly.

These facts don’t suggest a political position or moral judgment. They cannot, in and of themselves, determine if increased immigration is a net positive or negative in Indiana. What they do show, however, is that communities around the state, of all sizes, are changing. Hoosier communities do not look the same today as they did 50 years ago, nor are they likely to look that way again in the near future.

These basic pieces of data also indicate that immigrants represent a wealth of potential to declining rural Indiana communities if they are willing to capitalize on their changing demographic realities and incorporate these realities into how they think about themselves going into the future.

Emily J. Wornell is a research assistant professor with the Indiana Communities Institute, Center for Business and Economic Research and the Rural Policy Research Institute Center for State Policy, all at Ball State University. Her research interests lie at the intersection of policy and research, including inequality and population change in rural communities. Send comment to editorial@therepublic.com.