The nation’s major metropolitan areas have long served as hubs attracting steady streams of immigrants from all over the world seeking opportunities. Now, as some cities lose residents and the native population ages, migration from abroad has overtaken homegrown and domestic population shifts in many urban areas.

A Governing analysis of new census estimates found that 135 metro areas experienced an increase in international migration surpassing domestic population growth. In each of these regions, net international migration exceeded the combined net domestic migration and natural change (births and deaths) between the 2010 Census and last summer.

As Americans moved out of the Rust Belt and other areas, those from outside the U.S. took their place. The Detroit metro area saw more than 50,000 residents move away since 2010, but added more than 21,000 via international migration. Similarly, the Cleveland-Elyria, Ohio, area recorded a net domestic migration loss of 27,000 residents, but attracted nearly 8,000 from abroad.

In fact, 37 growing metro areas would have lost total population had it not been for new residents from overseas. Such metro areas include New York City, Trenton, N.J., and Reading, Pa.

International migration has historically accounted for the bulk of the population growth in many of the nation’s coastal cities. The New York City, Los Angeles and Miami metro areas, for example, each welcomed more than 100,000 international residents over the two-year period.

But some regions not traditionally known as international destinations have attracted new groups of foreigners. Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, said many such areas saw a noticeable uptick in their immigrant populations beginning in the 1990s.

Latino groups living in New York City boroughs began to branch out to other areas of the state, and across state borders to New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Those initially settling around Los Angeles also moved to Nevada or Arizona, lured by lower costs of living.

“A number of hot spots emerged,” Batalova said. “The primary driving forces were that immigrants were looking for new jobs, lower costs of living and educational opportunities for their children.”

Once immigrant communities in these areas established themselves, word got back to those living abroad, then international migration followed. These networks, according to Batalova, act as the “oil of the migration machine.”

Each metro area offers its own unique opportunities for immigrants.

Cities like Boston boast world-renowned colleges and universities, while Minneapolis and Detroit are home to large refugee populations.

Silicon Valley also continues to be a destination for college-educated immigrants working in the technology sector. The San Jose metro area, which includes Santa Clara and Silicon Valley, saw a net increase of about 30,400 immigrants since the 2010 Census, according to estimates.

Monica Limas, interim director at the San Jose-based Center for Employment Training, said the region’s high-tech companies recently jumpstarted hiring, so foreign employees likely account for much of the increase. Many of these educated workers migrated from India, and the center assists large numbers of Latino and Vietnamese immigrants as well.

The recession, coupled with stepped-up border enforcement efforts, slowed international migration in recent years, Batalova said. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. is slowly declining after reaching a peak of 12 million in 2007, mostly driven by a sharp decrease in the flow of immigrants from Mexico.

To lure immigrants, an increasing number of local governments have set up special offices or programs specifically targeting them.

Officials in Dayton, Ohio, established a Welcome Dayton plan in 2011 that’s since evolved to include programs such as grants for new business owners and an international soccer tournament. In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake signed an order requesting social service and law enforcement agencies not to ask anyone about their immigration status.

Earlier this month, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter created an Office of Immigrant and Multi-Cultural Affairs, slated to provide immigrants with access to city services, local nonprofits and educational programs. The office is likely to stay busy once it's up and running, given that the surrounding metro area has added more than twice the number of residents from international migration than net domestic migration and natural changes since the 2010 Census.

Michigan, the only state losing population in the 2010 Census, has also rolled out the red carpet for immigrants.

“Welcoming Michigan,” a project of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, focuses on making four communities in the state more immigrant-friendly. Susan Reed, a supervising attorney for the center, says local officials need to first communicate the benefits of immigrants, especially to those who fear they'll take their jobs.

In a state like Michigan – with severe job losses -- this can be a difficult task.

“Some people just feel a sense of loss of what the Michigan economy has been through and that we can’t afford to be welcoming,” Reed said.

Immigrants, though, often use their unique skill sets to start up businesses and create employment opportunities. What’s more, these groups help to subsidize agriculture and other industries with low-wage jobs.

“It’s really engaging the community in a dialogue about the tensions, such as tensions around language, delivery of service or religion,” Reed said.


The international migration data represents estimates, not hard population counts. The Census Bureau, according to its methodology, bases its estimates on immigration/emigration of the foreign born, net migration between Puerto Rico and the U.S., migration of natives in and out of the country and movement of those serving in the Armed Forces. So, not all residents included in the census migration estimates are foreigners.

Nearly every metro area across the country recorded positive net international in-migration, with only three experiencing declines since 2010. Of 381 metro areas, 187 registered negative net domestic migration and 139 reported more deaths than births, according to estimates.

Not surprisingly, major urban hubs home to large minority communities welcomed that largest numbers of international residents. The following 10 metro areas had the largest net international migration since the 2010 Census:

  • New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA: 269,067
  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA: 112,503
  • Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL: 111,181
  • Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV: 79,564
  • Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX: 54,391
  • Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI: 52,120
  • Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH: 50,950
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: 49,077
  • Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX: 42,805
  • Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA: 40,013

The following table shows estimated population changes for each metro area occurring between the 2010 Census and July 2012. The second column refers the difference between net international migration and domestic population changes, which take into account residents relocating, births and deaths. A total of 135 of these areas recorded faster international migration than domestic growth, led by New York City.