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Looking Back to Look Forward: Lessons from the Immigration Histories

RESEARCH Report by Rob Paral
Chicago skyline.
Allen McGregor

Cities of the American Midwest were largely built by immigration, and immigrants were a key component of the population growth these cities experienced in the early decades of the last century.


This analysis explores how the federal immigration cutback acted as a tourniquet on the growth of 13 large Midwestern cities. Although factors such as suburbanization and migration south and west drew population from these cities, the loss of immigration was a serious blow that contributed to decades-long stagnation and declines in the numbers of residents. Only in the last few decades did immigrant populations begin to rebound in the cities, helping to stabilize ongoing loss of natives. Today, national policymakers are once again considering deep, new cuts to legal immigration levels, including the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order from the White House, which calls for an administrative review of the immigration system, to the Senate’s Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (“RAISE”) Act and its House companion bill, the Immigration in the National Interest Act , which purport to halve legal immigration by legislating a selective points-based admission system.

But Midwestern cities have a special tale to tell about cuts to immigration. Contemporary versions of restrictive 1920s-era legislation will deprive many Midwestern cities of a major source of new residents and would constitute a major blow to their revival.

Key Findings

  • The 13 large Midwestern cities included in this report grew by 120 percent between 1900 and 1930. Some 41 percent of this population boom was fueled by a 55 percent increase in foreign-born residents and their children.
  • Following a series of 1920s-era legislation that restricted immigration to the United States, the foreign-born population of these 13 cities fell 64 percent between 1930 and 1970.
  • The dramatic decline in foreign-born population correlated with stagnation and decline of overall population in Midwestern cities. Between 1950 and 1970, these cities’ population collectively fell by 7.5 percent.

After the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act rewrote many of the 1920s-era restrictions, immigrants began returning to the region, albeit at lower rates than in previous decades. Since 1990, these cities’ foreign-born population has grown 45 percent, helping offset an overall population loss driven by a drop in native-born residents. 

The legislative proposals being considered at the federal level threaten this critical demographic lifeline, and along with it, cities’ economic competitiveness, local tax base, and federal representation.

About the Author
Rob Paral
Nonresident Fellow, Global Cities
Council expert Rob Paral
Rob Paral is a demographic and public policy consultant who's a nonresident fellow at the Council. His specialties include immigrant, Latino and Asian populations, community needs for health and human service programs, and Midwestern demographic change. As principal of Rob Paral and Associates, Paral has assisted more than 100 different human service, advocacy, and philanthropic organizations.
Council expert Rob Paral