Mapping Immigration: Tennessee's Foreign-Born Population 3rd Quarter 2014

Tables and Graphs


Tennessee still lags significantly behind most of the U.S. in the relative size of its immigrant community.

Immigration joins foreign investment and trade as one of the great avenues of globalization. As trade and foreign investment have grown in Tennessee, so has the number of people arriving from abroad. Once among the American states with the smallest foreign-born populations, today over 300,000 people living in Tennessee have come from another country. Close to one-third have arrived during the past decade.

Tennessee still lags significantly behind most of the U.S. in the relative size of its immigrant community. About 4.7% of the state population is foreign born, compared to 13.1% of the American population. However, the state is catching up. Ten years ago, the Tennessee ratio of foreign born to total population was 3.7%, about 31% of the national ratio. In 2013, it had risen to about 36% of the national ratio. (In 1960, by the way, Tennessee stood at just 7% of the national ratio.)

The state's immigrant community, however, is geographically quite concentrated. Most state immigrants are found in a handful of communities, led by the Nashville area. In 2013, 4,275 of the 8,380 new permanent residents that came to Tennessee located in Nashville and surrounding areas. That's over half of the state's total. The Nashville MSA ranked 39th among all American metropolitan statistical areas in the number of permanent residencies that were granted. In fact, in 2013 more than four out of five new Tennessee immigrants moved to either Nashville, Memphis, or Knoxville. These same areas are home to more than two-thirds of all immigrants currently living in Tennessee.

The map above shows the intensity of Tennessee immigration at the county level. (The interactive map displays county-wide immigration totals, comparing the five years ending in 2013 with that of 2009.) Many counties actually have fewer immigrants resident than four years earlier. Frankly, this is because of the economic difficulties in many of these areas. Outside of urban areas, immigration in Tennessee has clustered in agricultural and food-processing localities. These patterns are long-standing, as we noted in our previous survey of state immigration (Global Commerce, second quarter, 2011). The fact that immigration is not growing in a number of relatively high-immigrant rural counties is further indication of declining jobs in these sectors. We might take as an example Bedford County.

It continues to have a relatively high ratio of immigrants, particularly because of the processing industry there. But in recent years the number of immigrants has dropped substantially following a decline in available jobs. Manufacturing employment in Bedford County overall has fallen 20% over the past decade.

We might note that long-term immigrants ("permanent residents") are dwarfed by the numbers of short-term foreign visitors to Tennessee. Over 180,000 people visited Tennessee from abroad in 2013, about 14,000 of them as students. This is more than 20 times the number that sought a new home here.

Many people believe Tennessee immigration is overwhelmingly from Mexico, but today that is far from the truth. Only 11% of the state's 2013 immigrants (940 people) are from Mexico. This compares to 13% for the entire U.S. In fact, the state welcomed almost twice as many new immigrants from Asia as from the Americas. Many also believe immigration is surging into the state, which is also not quite accurate. The number of new arrivals has remained quite steady throughout our new century, at around 8,000 to 9,000 a year, peaking in 2006. The primary cyclical pattern, as one might expect, is the condition of the economy. In good times, when jobs are plentiful, immigration rises. And when jobs grow scarce, as after the financial crash, it slows.

The goal of most immigrants is to become Americans. Figuring out their rate of success is not easy. For most permanent residents, there is a minimum five-year wait to become naturalized. (It's less if you're a spouse of an American.) But of course it can take much longer. If we make a crude "naturalization rate" calculation, we find the number of newly naturalized citizens is about half the number of permanent residents that arrived in Tennessee five years earlier. This ratio has held pretty steady over the years, though it has bounced around a bit. It's just slightly below the rate for the entire U.S. In 2013, Tennessee ranked 22nd among states in the number of foreign born that became American citizens.

A final topic always of interest is unauthorized or illegal immigration. Accurate statistics of its size are notoriously difficult to find. However, the Migration Policy Institute estimates it to be in the neighborhood of 119,000 for the state of Tennessee. This would mean about 30% of Tennessee's foreign-born residents fall into this category. The institute also estimates that 33,000 unauthorized immigrants live in Davidson County and another 24,000 in Shelby. These two counties thus account for over half of this population. It's interesting that the Memphis area appears to have by far the highest ratio of unauthorized immigrants to foreign-born residents: 40%. The reason for this is not immediately apparent. Since close to 60% of the illegal immigration to Tennessee comes from Mexico, it is likely due to characteristics of the Memphis economy and its existing immigrant community. As with immigration more generally, the consensus is that unauthorized immigration has slowed in recent years and might now be better termed as "steady" than the more apocalyptic terms one sometimes hears.

It is easy to either overstate or understate the impact of immigration on Tennessee. The number of immigrants remains relatively small compared to the whole population, and its rate of growth is not changing much. That said, the absolute number of immigrants has been steadily rising, transforming many communities around the state. For many Tennesseans, immigrant neighbors or coworkers are their most direct encounter with globalization. There is every evidence such encounters will become ever more frequent in the years ahead.