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A View from Wisconsin

Demographic Trends and Data


In 1990 immigrants made up 2.5% of Wisconsin’s total population. That percentage grew to 3.6% in 2000, and to 4.5% in 2010.

The figures below compare the share of the immigrant population in Wisconsin compared with other states in the Midwest, and the growth of that population between 1990 and 2010.

The foreign-born population in Wisconsin grew by 110% between 1990 and 2010. This was one of the lowest increases in the Midwest region.


In 2003, the government of Thailand threatened to repatriate thousands of Laotian-Hmong refugees living along its border. The Hmong, a minority ethnic group with large populations in Vietnam and Laos have been targets of persecution by the governments of both countries for supporting the United States during the Vietnam War. In the years following the war, thousands of Hmong fled to the relative safety of refugee camps and other informal settlements in Thailand. Many have spent their entire lives in the camps and the threat of repatriation, coupled with the Laotian government’s refusal to accept their return, called their safety and their future into question. In light of this growing security concern, the U.S. negotiated a deal with the Thai government in December of 2003 to resettle 15,000 Hmong refugees, mostly from a settlement surrounding the Wat Tham Krabok monastery.

This agreement underpins the dramatic spike in refugees coming to Wisconsin from FY 2004 to FY 2006. The high number of Hmong that came to Wisconsin following the camp closure should be no surprise given its long history of receiving refugees from Southeast Asia. Indeed, as early as 1990, Wisconsin was a national leader in the number of Hmong to resettle in the state, following only California and Minnesota.

In recent years, however, Wisconsin’s refugee population has become increasingly diverse. Since 2000, Wisconsin has taken in 8,421 refugees from 32 countries. On average, an additional 47 asylum seekers settle in the state each year. As of FY 2011, the core refugee groups represented in terms of national origin are: (1) Laos (3,346); (2) Burma (ethnic Karen & Chin) (1,628); (3) Former Yugoslavia (948); (4) Somalia (587); (5) Iraq (390). These groups will likely change in the coming years as the number of arrivals from Laos and the former Yugoslavia declines and arrivals from new countries such as Burma and Bhutan continue to increase each year. As of FY 2010, refugees constitute roughly 3.0% of Wisconsin’s total foreign born population.

Although Hmong refugees have resettled in urban areas across the state, including Milwaukee, Madison, Appleton, and Eau Claire, most recent refugee arrivals settle in the greater Milwaukee metropolitan area. That being said, the refugee population in Wisconsin has begun to spread into more rural parts of the state. For instance, as of 2004, 13% of the population of rural Barron County consisted of Somali refugees who had moved to the area to work in the meat processing industry.

A number of agencies are responsible for refugee resettlement in Wisconsin, including Catholic Charities of Green Bay, Eau Claire, and Milwaukee ; the International Institute of Wisconsin (Milwaukee); Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan (Wausau); Jewish Family Services of Milwaukee ; and the Pan-African Community Association.


These agencies act as local affiliates of the ten national agencies (VOLAGs) that collaborate with the federal government during the early phases of resettlement. They provide assistance in a variety of areas, such as health services, school enrollment, and English-language tutoring. The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families also administers a number of programs (with funding from the Office of Refugee Resettlement) designed to integrate refugees into the local workforce. The Department currently reports that around 95% of refugees in the state have achieved economic self-sufficiency.


The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the proportion of undocumented immigrants, as a share of the total population of Wisconsin, has increased substantially between 1990 and 2010, though the proportion of undocumented persons remains very small.” It is important to emphasize that these numbers are only broad estimates. The actual numbers may be quite different.

The figure below compares the estimated percent of the total population that is undocumented in Wisconsin among the 12 Midwestern states and the United States.


Forty-nine percent of the population in Milwaukee and Madison suburbs were foreign-born in 2010, compared with 6% of urban and 2% of rural residents.

An examination of data on all of the immigrants living in metropolitan areas in Wisconsin demonstrates that the majority (55%) live in Milwaukee and Madison. The other metropolitan areas in Wisconsin saw their share of Foreign-born residents remain relatively stable between 2000 and 2010.



In Wisconsin, and across the region, in 2010 a larger percentage of immigrants (60%) than US-born residents (51%) were currently married. Not surprisingly, the total household size of the foreign-born was also larger—3 individuals, compared with 2.4 for the native-born. Household members can be either relatives, or unrelated individuals.

Immigration History

French fur traders and missionaries arrived in the territory that is now the state of Wisconsin well in advance of the American Revolutionary War. They set up farmsteads and trading posts for their pelts along the Mississippi River. Between 1800 and 1830, the only other groups to share the sparsely populated territory with these French immigrants were Native American tribes, yet these were forcibly expelled in large numbers during the Black Hawk War of 1832.Around the time of the Black Hawk War, other immigrant groups began settling in Wisconsin’s southwestern region, where they worked predominantly as miners extracting lead. Most of these were foreign-born Cornish and Welsh, and also native-born migrants from other territories. The Erie Canal was completed that same year, which afforded Wisconsin an unobstructed waterway to the Atlantic and the ports of entry on the East Coast. This led to considerable gains in immigrants and overall population.

Between 1850 and 1870, Wisconsin’s population swelled from 305,391 to 1,054,670. Much of this increase was due to an influx of Germans fleeing the failed revolutions in the Prussian states of Central Europe in 1848. These immigrants joined the small enclaves of Germans already established along the western shore of Lake Michigan. By 1850, more than 16 percent of the state’s total population was composed of foreign-born Germans. German immigrants continued to compose a sizeable portion of the population well into the 20th century. They also wielded enough political clout to elect Carl Schurz to the U.S. Senate, the first German immigrant to hold such an office, and to maintain a vocal campaign supporting the teaching of German language in public schools. The German population in the state declined over the previous century, but there is still a strong German presence and cultural heritage even today. As of 2009, the state still had 36,138 residents who reported speaking German at home.

Not long after the German influx following the wars of 1848, Polish immigrants began arriving in Wisconsin. The Poles were soon well dispersed throughout the state, settling both in rural areas to farm, and in urban areas to work in manufacturing and other industrial jobs. Polish immigration slackened during the first half of the 20th century. But it picked back up in the mid-1900s, as Poles fled first the Nazis and then the Soviet regime.

Hispanic immigrants began arriving in Wisconsin, during the 1970s. Most of these hailed from Mexico, where economic conditions had deteriorated precipitously, and jobs and farmland were both scarce. Between 1990 and 2000, the foreign-born Hispanic population in the state nearly tripled. Since then, it has gradually slowed down, increasing by a more moderate 60 percent over the next decade. The state also has a significant population of Hmong immigrants.


In its simplest form, ‘immigrant assimilation’ refers to a process whereby, over time, immigrants become indistinguishable from native-born residents. This process is neither one-way, nor linear, and not all changes lead to improved status. It also ignores the myriad ways in which native-born residents are influenced by immigrants.To the general public two of the most visible markers of assimilation are language proficiency and socio-economic status. Clusters of poor, ethnically or racially distinct foreign-born residents with low levels of schooling and English proficiency perpetuate perceptions of difference and foster the impression that contemporary immigrants are not assimilating as quickly as white Europeans who came to the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, such perceptions are rarely accompanied by analyses of barriers to assimilation, or support for programs that might accelerate the integration of new immigrants.

Differences in such measures as English language ability, home ownership and income depend upon much more than whether an individual was born outside or inside of the U.S. There are important differences in the ease of assimilation that depend upon the age and skill level that an immigrant has when he or she enters the country, and the kinds of opportunities that are available after arrival. It is important to keep these factors in mind when comparing the experiences of immigrants in various states or regions of the U.S.


The general public often perceives immigrants to be concentrated in low-level jobs, but in actuality immigrant workers are fairly well dispersed across the skills spectrum; the most rapid growth in the employment of immigrants since 2000 has been in middle-skilled jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a college degree. However the greatest increase in projected numbers of new jobs are in those that require low-levels of education and training. Between 1990 and 2006, the share of immigrant workers in each of the four employment sectors increased dramatically and outpaced the increase in native-born workers’ jobs in rate of increase, but not in absolute numbers, with the exception of construction.

Median earnings for the foreign-born and native-born in Wisconsin are shown below for 2010, and then median earnings of the foreign-born are further stratified by period of entry. It can be noted that the foreign-born who arrived in the earlier waves before 1990, or between 1990 and 2000, have higher median earnings than those who have arrived more recently.


In 2006, 46% of foreign-born workers earned “family-sustaining wages,” compared to 59% of native-born workers. The percentages of foreign-born and native-born living below 100% of the Poverty Level in Wisconsin are shown below for 2010.

One indication of assimilation over time is that the poverty rate for naturalized citizens was considerably lower than that for non-citizens, and even lower than that for native-born citizens. Because immigrants must be legal permanent residents for at least five years before naturalizing, the income difference may indicate that incomes are improving over time. It could also be the result of a “self selection” effect, whereby those individuals who elect to become citizens, and who learn enough English and civics to pass the citizenship test are also those who will achieve some economic success. It is likely that both factors are at work.


Immigrants who were born in Asia and Europe had considerably higher mean incomes than those born in Latin America (not shown).

Some kinds of demographic and socio-economic data are only available for racial/ethnic groups, rather than for immigrants. In the absence of data on such measures as home of business ownership among immigrant groups if may be of interest to compare these measures for Hispanics or Asians with the important caveat that the comparisons include a majority of native-born residents.

In 2010 the percentage of Asian and Hispanic-owned businesses were lower than their share of the population.

Although the percentages of Wisconsin businesses owned by U.S.- or foreign-born Asians and Hispanics are small, they account for 6,785 and 5,619 firms respectively. The positive impact of immigrant integration into the business sector in Wisconsin is additionally indicated by the fact that in  2007 immigrant businesses had combined sales and receipts of $4.7 billion in Wisconsin, and employed 26,000 workers.


Asians and Hispanics/Latinos have rates of home ownership that are similar to those in other Midwest states. In the 2007 American Community Survey, the percentage of all Hispanics (foreign-born and native-born) who were homeowners was 30%. Of the entire Asian population in Wisconsin, 52% were homeowners.


Immigrants in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest, had both higher and lower levels of education than native-born residents in 2010. By this we mean that they were both much more likely to have less than a high school diploma, and slightly more likely to have a graduate or professional degree. Educational attainment is a very important dimension of integration, as it is strongly related to other dimensions of integration such as income and English language proficiency. Nationally and in the Midwest, the children of immigrants tend to achieve higher levels of education than their parents, although Caucasian and Asian youth go further in school than do Hispanics (or African Americans, few of whom are foreign-born).

In Wisconsin, graduation rates were lower for Hispanic students (foreign-born and native-born combined) than for their Caucasian and Asian peers.


Similarly, the Hispanic dropout rate in Wisconsin in the 2007-2008 school year (5.4%) was nearly four times that of White students (1.4%) and over two and a half times the rate for Asian students (2%).

State testing data has come under scrutiny in recent years because of the connection between measures of student performance and federal funding levels. However, if the data can be believed, state tests in Wisconsin leave some room for optimism regarding improved student performance. According to the U.S. Department of Education, grade 8 all-student averages improved 5% in math and stayed steady in reading between 2004-05 and 2009-10. The scores for Hispanic students went up 14% in math and 5% in reading.

Despite the challenges facing Hispanic students, national data show that second generation immigrants exceed their parents’ education levels.


Higher educational attainment among members of the second-generation is not specific to Mexicans; it is consistent across all immigrant groups.


English Proficiency is collected by self-report in the Census and American Community Survey. Respondents can respond that they do not speak English, speak English only, or speak another language in addition to English. This final group is then divided further as they indicate how well they speak English as either “Very well,” “Well,” or “Not well.” The chart below compares English Proficiency in the foreign-born population, showing the percent of the foreign-born who identified themselves as speaking English “Well,” “Very Well,” or as their native/only language. There was a slight increase in the percentage of those speaking English well or better from 2000 to 2010 that is not significant; small levels of change may be due to sampling error; larger differences are likely be due to a combination of English language learning by foreign-born over time and higher English proficiency levels of more recent immigrants.

In 2010, 78% of immigrants spoke English well, very well or fluently.

Levels of English language learning vary significantly within and between immigrant groups. More important than country of origin is the age at which an individual entered the U.S., and his or her level of education and literacy in their native language. In Wisconsin, 8% of the total state population spoke a language other than English at home in 2010, and 3% of the total population spoke English less than very well. Two percent of households were linguistically isolated (meaning that all members of the household age 14 and over were limited English proficient).

The percentage of foreign-born residents who are limited English proficient (LEP) has remained relatively high over the years.

As would be expected, the children of immigrants speak English at a much higher average rate than the total population of foreign-born in the state.


Similarly, immigrants who have naturalized as U.S. citizens (and who are likely to have been in the country longer) have lower rates of LEP than noncitizens.


Linguistic integration, like other measures of integration, varies among different immigrant groups. Among the foreign-born ages 5 and older in Wisconsin in 2009, those who spoke Spanish at home had the highest percent LEP, compared to speakers of Asian and Pacific, Indo-European, or other languages at home.

Though Hispanics in Wisconsin and across the Midwest are more likely to be LEP than other groups, national data show that, in comparison to predominantly white, European immigrants from the early 20th Century, contemporary Hispanic and Latino immigrants learn English at faster rates within the first five years of arrival in the United States. The same is true for the population of immigrants who arrived in the country between 1980 and 2000.


One of the clearest measures of integration is the rate at which immigrants become naturalized citizens of the United States. Naturalization not only means becoming an American citizen, but generally also requires a modest demonstration of knowledge of American civics, history basic English language skills. In Wisconsin, 40% of all immigrants were naturalized citizens in 2010. Of immigrants in Wisconsin who entered the United States before 1980, 81% were citizens in 2009, slightly higher than the national average (79%).

Not surprisingly, immigrants who have been in the country the longest are most likely to naturalize.


The figure below compares the percent of naturalized citizens in Wisconsin and in the other eleven Midwest states, both in 2000 and in 2010.


In the 2008 elections, 5% of registered voters in Wisconsin were naturalized citizens or the U.S.-born children of immigrants. This proportion of the voting population is bound to rise, considering that the foreign-born voting-eligible population increased by 31% from 2000-2006, and that 88% of children with immigrant parents in Wisconsin were U.S. citizens in 2009.

As of 2012, however, representation of ethnic minorities among elected officials in Wisconsin remains disproportionately low relative to their share of the population; while 3% of the total population is Hispanic, only 1% of state legislators are ethnically Hispanic, and no state legislators are Asian, though Asians represent 2% of the total population.


Tomas Jiminez explained the value of intermarriage as an indication of integration by saying, “When individuals marry each other without regard to ethno-racial or national origin, it indicates that the social boundaries between groups are highly permeable.” Jiminez also highlighted the interconnection of various integration measures by pointing out that intermarriage rates are determined, in part, by English language acquisition and socioeconomic status, which shape opportunities to interact with those of different ethnic or national origins.

Data on inter-marriages between immigrants and native-born residents is not available, but between 2008 and 2010, 9% of all marriages in Wisconsin were interracial or interethnic. While lower than the national average of 15%, this figure is just below the average in the Midwestern (11%).



Four  immigration-related bills have been enacted in Wisconsin since 2008. In addition, the state’s two most populous cities and second-most populous county have adopted confidentiality policies to limit the ability of local agencies to enforce immigration laws.  Examples of an important bill and other legislative developments are shown below.


2010 – Statute Provision Revisions (WI A 573). This law amends the Wisconsin code to require that the department of workforce development will not issue a permit to operate a migrant labor camp to a person who has failed to pay court-ordered child support or family support payments.


According to the National Council of La Raza, an Arizona-style law enforcement bill was still under consideration by the Wisconsin legislature, as of the end of 2011.

2010 – Food Processing Plant and Warehouse Investment (WI A 757). This bill would have created a refundable tax credit for the expansion or modernization of a food processing plant or food warehouse facility. Employers who are found to employ unauthorized immigrants would be ineligible to receive the tax credit. These provisions were line-item vetoed by the governor.

2009 – Budget Act (WI A 75). This budget bill originally included funding for refugee programs and English classes. The law aimed to allow non-U.S. citizens to receive in-state college tuition exemptions, provided they had graduated from a Wisconsin high school or earned the equivalency of a high school diploma in Wisconsin; have been a continuous resident for at least 3 years after starting high school in the state; and upon college enrollment they prove that they have filed or will file for a permanent resident visa as soon as they are eligible to do so. These provisions were line-item vetoed by the governor.

Labor Force Data

The proportion of immigrants in the U.S. labor force almost doubled between 1990 and 2010—from 9 to 16 percent, at a time when the percentage of native-born workers decreased from 91 to 84%. Although the foreign-born workforce makes up a relatively small percentage of the total labor force, it grew at a rate that was seven times faster rate than that for the native-born workforce.Almost half of immigrant workers in Wisconsin were born in Latin America, and about 30% are from Asia.


Immigrant workers in the state make up a smaller percentage of the labor force than in the U.S. as a whole.

The top industries employing immigrants and U.S.-born workers in Wisconsin in the state are similar, although foreign-born workers are more likely to work in manufacturing, and are not heavily employed in retail trade.

Wisconsin had a higher state-wide unemployment rate in January of 2011 than six other states in the Midwest; immigrants in the construction industry (not shown) were particularly hard-hit.

In spite of the recession, demand for immigrant workers continued, and the percentage of foreign-born civilian workers increased by 54% in Wisconsin and by 40% nationally from 2000-2009. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an increased need for workers in a variety of high-skilled and low-skilled occupations, several of which have a shortage of U.S.-born workers.


Although the foreign-born workforce makes up a relatively small percentage of the total labor force, it is growing at a much faster rate than the native-born workforce.

The foreign-born workforce in the Wisconsin grew while the native-born labor force decreased over the period from 1990 to 2010.



Wisconsin has a small, but modestly growing foreign-born population. Increases in the foreign-born work force are key to the future prosperity of the state and the Midwest region.

The most dramatic demographic shift in the United States today is the aging of the population—a development that increases the tax burden on young workers who make payroll contributions to cover the costs of Social Security and Medicare. Aging has been accelerated by the out-migration of young native-born workers, a phenomenon that Rogerson and Kim aptly call “the emptying of the Bread Basket of its breadwinners.” A steady influx of immigrant workers is essential to maintaining a young and productive work force.

Who's Involved

  • Enrique E. Figueroa, Associate Professor and Director, Roberta Hernandez Center, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

    Dr. Figueroa is an Associate Professor and the Director of the Roberto Hernandez Center at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where he is also the assistant to the Provost for Latino Affairs. He created and leads the Latino Nonprofit Leadership Program. His formal schooling includes an M.S. in Horticulture and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics—all from U.C.-Davis. Twice, he worked for the House Committee on Agriculture in the U.S. Congress. Dr. Figueroa was appointed as Administrator of Agricultural Marketing Service by the Clinton Administration and subsequently was promoted to Deputy Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, both at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

  • Darryl D. Morin, President and Chief Executive Officer, Advanced Wireless, Inc.

    Darryl Morin is the President and CEO of Advanced Wireless, Inc. (AWI) providing unified enterprise mobility (UEM) solutions to corporations, schools and healthcare providers. Mr. Morin is the immediate past State Director for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), our country’s oldest and largest Hispanic membership based organizations. In addition, Mr. Morin serves on the Board of Directors for the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board and the Wisconsin Hispanic Scholarship Foundation, Inc., is a Co-Founder of the Justice for Immigrants Committee of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and is a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin and the Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee. 



  • Moses Altsech – Marketing Department Chair, Edgewood College
  • Anne Arnesen – Board Member, Wisconsin Council on Children and Families Foundation
  • Mary Pat Berry – Patient Advocate
  • Joyce Bromley – Author
  • Jane Coleman – Retired Executive Director, Madison Community Foundation
  • Dolores Connelly – CEO, Sterling Engineering, Inc.
  • Shaun Judge Duvall – Founder, Puentes/ Bridges
  • Carl E. Gulbrandsen – Managing Director, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation
  • Barbara Hawkins – Retired Consultant and Grant Writer
  • Andrea Kaminski – Executive Director, League of Women’s Voters of Wisconsin
  • Gail Kohl – Development Consultant
  • Marilyn J. Martin – Retired Educator
  • David G. Meissner – President, Chairman (retired), Public Policy Forum
  • Michael Morales – CEO, Advanced Consulting & Training
  • Wilda Nilsestuen – Wisconsin Rural Physician Residency Assistance Program
  • Tim O’Harrow – Wisconsin dairy farmer
  • BJ Pfeiffer – President and CEO, Enterprise Solutions Technology Group, Inc.
  • Melanie G. Raney – CEO, The Hope of Wisconsin
  • Deb Reinhart – dairy producer
  • Beverly S. Simone – President Emeritus, Madison College
  • Carol Skornicka – Former Senior Vice President, Midwest AirGroup, Inc.
  • Mayor Paul R. Soglin – Mayor, City of Madison
  • Thomas P. Solheim – Managing Partner, Solheim Billing and Grimmer, S.C.
  • Jane Villa – Community Volunteer
  • David C. Villa – Chief Investment Officer, State of Wisconsin Investment Board