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For Welcoming Week, a study tallies the economic impact of immigrants on McLean County

A young woman speaks at a podium in front of a projector screen, in an old courtroom
Ryan Denham
Prajna Kurella is a student at Normal Community High School who is part of BN Welcoming and the local Not In Our School chapter.

A coalition called BN Welcoming is using national Welcoming Week to remind Bloomington-Normal about the economic impact that immigrants have on the community.

BN Welcoming asked Illinois State University’s Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development if it could measure that impact. The center’s director, Frank Beck, and a small team of graduate students did just that, by looking at individual Census data and records and doing interviews.

Big picture: There were about 12,000 immigrants in McLean County, around 7% of the population. Together, they contribute over a billion dollars to the local economy and pay $75 million in taxes every year. (WGLT previously reported on preliminary results of this research.)

“These are folks who responded to the Census. Let’s be clear that the numbers could be larger,” Beck said.

The data is a few years old. Immigrants were 5.7% of the working age population. That's people 16 to 64. But they were 7.6% of the labor force.

“Compared to non-immigrants, immigrants are more likely to be in the labor force. They’re more likely to be workers and contributing to the economy,” Beck said.

Beck said this group isn't a monolith.

Immigration Project executive director Charlotte Alvarez speaks at a podium
Ryan Denham
Immigration Project executive director Charlotte Alvarez said immigrants aren't just an economic force to be valued only through that lens.

“We think of it as Latinx individuals. But in our community, we have a significant Congolese population. And we found this intriguing: Of the languages spoken in McLean County, those who are immigrants are speaking 38 different languages at home. It is not just Spanish and French,” he said.

The Immigration Project has a more current view of these Bloomington-Normal residents. It's a legal aid and social service agency based in Normal.

Immigration Project executive director Charlotte Alvarez said immigrants aren't just an economic force to be valued only through that lens.

“They’re a human force. We appreciate the economic contributions of our immigrant population, and we appreciate the human contributions and each person for their own dignity and individuality, regardless of their economic contribution. But wow, what an impact economic impact, and a positive force for good,” Alvarez said.

Prejudice and misconceptions

That positive force for good collides at times with prejudice, ignorance, or misconception. Or all of the above.

Prajna Kurella is a student at Normal Community High School who is part of BN Welcoming and the local Not In Our School chapter.

“As a student of color, there have been many things I witnessed in my lifetime. Within elementary school, I was bullied for being Indian – if it was, my food is smelly, or how dark my skin was. These (experiences) have caused me several years of self-doubt and overall caused me to hate who I was. Finally, now as a senior in high school, I’ve reached a level of self-acceptance, and being a part of these organizations has helped me to grow as a person,” she said.

Kurella urged people to take the time to learn about their community.

“This diversity is what’s going to keep our community strong and fruitful. It’s what coming generations will learn to love in our community. It’s what makes us connected, to explore the wonders of the world through different people and their backgrounds,” she said.

The study's findings undercut the common tropes and beliefs about immigrants. One of them being that they’re a drain on the economy or government coffers.

“Well, look at the amazing amounts of taxes,” Alvarez said. “Look at the rates of entrepreneurship. Look at the rates of economic development that our immigrant populations are providing. But also, I see a lot of people who don’t interact with our immigrant population who say, ‘Well, immigration isn’t an issue here. There are no immigrants here, so we don’t have to provide multilingual services here.’ But if we look at the numbers, if we’re not providing multilingual services, there’s at least 8% of the population that might face access challenges.”

The study was done last year, and a lot has changed in the world since this underlying data was baked, back in 2019. The Trump administration ended. The COVID pandemic began and abated. Policymakers worked on immigration law, but only around the edges.

As for Alvarez's read on the flow of immigrants into Bloomington-Normal today, she says a lot of the recent arrivals have made asylum claims – and that comes with a legally required delay in ability to work.

“We’ve seen recent arrivals from Venezuela, from Central America, and some recent arrivals from Haiti in our region. But those communities are still trying to find themselves and settle. Some have come to Bloomington-Normal because of the forced busing situation – with buses moving up to Chicago. And then some have found roots here. Some have moved on to other communities. It’s all kind of in flux as people respond and find what’s best for them,” Alvarez said.

If immigrants have all these positive economic impact on the community, what would happen if Congress ever did pass comprehensive immigration reform that created clearer pathways to work or citizenship?

Frank Beck says the economics are clear.

“The pie gets bigger. It’s not, who gets the pie and who gets the bigger piece of the pie? That’s why, just 10 years ago, this economy in our county was like $14 billion. Now it’s like $18 billion,” Beck said.

Alvarez' nonprofit works with immigrants trying to navigate the current system.

“We see so many people in our work who really are looking for a pathway to go through the legal process, to be able to find permanency, and the ability to work and contribute to the economy. And the U.S. government is putting barriers in those pathways, or making those pathways impossible,” Alvarez said. “If our immigration system really accepted the realities of our lived experiences as a community and was responsive to the humanitarian and employment needs that the system was designed to put forward, we’d see such a positive impact on a local and national level from that.”

The study was done by ISU's Stevenson Center. BN Welcoming is comprised of The Immigration Project, District 87 schools, Not In Our Town and Not In Our School, ISU staff, and the Mennonite Church of Normal.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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