By on 2.27.24 in Migration

Dr. Michael Cline is the state demographer for North Carolina at the Office of State Budget and Management and has given us permission to re-post his content here. The original version of this piece is here.

The foreign-born population in North Carolina has increased eightfold since 1990 from an estimated 115,000 (2% of the state’s 1990 population) to 868,000 people today (an estimated 8% of North Carolina residents). Although a significant population within North Carolina, the foreign-born population’s relative size still falls below that of the United States’ population (at 14%).

Most of North Carolina’s immigrant population arrived over a decade ago from all parts of the world, work in a variety of industries, and live in urban and rural areas of the state.

The following provides a brief overview of the characteristics of North Carolina’s foreign-born population.

Most immigrants came to the United States before 2010

About 40% of all immigrants living in North Carolina arrived in the United States prior to 2010, another 28% between 2000 and 2010, with the remaining 31% of all immigrants arriving after 2009.

Half of the foreign-born population in North Carolina was born somewhere in Latin America, an estimated 434,000 people. Another 28% (247,000 people) were born in Asia.
But the origins of immigrants are shifting from Latin America to two of the world’s most populated and fastest growing continents: Asia and Africa. Of immigrants arriving since 2009, less than half (42%) were born in Latin America.

Bar chart of all immigrants compared to recent immigrants by continent of origin
Source: US Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2018-2022 Estimates

Many immigrants have naturalized

An estimated 42% of the foreign-born population living in North Carolina are naturalized citizens of the United States. Of the 501,000 non-citizens, The Pew Research Center estimates about 325,000 or 65% to be unauthorized. Thus, among all immigrants living in North Carolina, an estimated 37% are not authorized to live in the United States (either they came to the United States without legal documentation or remained in the United States longer than their visa or work-permit allowed).

The largest foreign-born populations are found in our major urban counties

Most of the foreign-born populations can be found in our largest urban counties working in a variety of industries – from construction, services, and manufacturing to education, medical care, and high tech. The largest foreign-born populations can be found in Mecklenburg (179,823), Wake (156,282), Guilford (57,810), Durham (47,104), and Forsyth (34,135) Counties.

But many rural counties have sizeable foreign-born populations

Sizable foreign-born populations can also be found in many rural counties where they may work in agriculture and related industries including the manufacturing of agricultural goods (e.g. food processing, forest products milling, etc.).

The foreign-born population accounts for at least ten percent of the populations in eight counties:

  • Mecklenburg (16%),
  • Durham (15%),
  • Wake (14%),
  • Duplin (13%),
  • Orange (12%),
  • Union (11%),
  • Guilford (11%),
  • Sampson (10%)

The smallest proportions were found in these counties:

  • Bertie (1%),
  • Washington (1%),
  • Madison (1%),
  • Stokes (2%),
  • Camden (2%),
  • Gates (2%)
map of percent of foreign-born population by county for 2018-2022
Due to sample size, no data available for Hyde and Tyrrell Counties.

Socioeconomic characteristics of the foreign-born

As part of the assimilation process, immigrants acquire language ability and improve their English proficiency over time. Of the immigrant population 5 years of age and older, 19% spoke only English at home. Thirty-eight percent spoke another language at home but can speak English “very well.” The remaining 43% have limited English proficiency – meaning they speak English less than “very well.”

North Carolina’s immigrant population consists of a large number of highly educated individuals as well as many with limited formal education. Of the foreign-born population 25 years and older (741,000 people), 36% have earned a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree, compared to 34% of the native-born. At the same time, an estimated 27% have not earned a high school diploma or equivalency compared to 9% of the native-born.

Bar chart comparing levels of education between foreign and native-born people
Source: US Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2018-2022 Estimates

The employment and income characteristics of the foreign-born reflect these differences in educational attainment. Seventy-one percent of the 816,000 immigrants who were 16 years and older were in the labor force compared to 62% of the native-born.

The three largest industries that employ immigrants include: construction (16%); educational services, and health care and social assistance (16%); professional, scientific, and management, administrative and waste management services (15%); and manufacturing (15%). The top industries for native-born employees are:  educational services, and health care and social assistance (23%); retail trade (12%); manufacturing (12%); and arts, entertainment, and recreation, and accommodation and food services (9%).

There are an estimated 367,000 immigrant households. At $67,373, the median household income of the 367,000 immigrant households was slightly above $66,060 for households headed by a native-born person. But at the same time, more immigrant households had incomes below the federal poverty threshold (15% of immigrant households vs. 13% of native-born households).

comparisons of marital status, household size and labor participation for foreign and native-born people
Source: US Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2018-2022 Estimates

Immigrant households are larger on average than other households. The average size of immigrant households was 3.3 which compared to 2.4 for native-born households. Immigrants are also more likely to live in married-couple family households. During this period, 67% of the foreign-born population lived in married-couple family households, compared to 57% of the native-born population.

About the Estimates

Unless otherwise noted, the estimates included in this summary are derived from the US Census Bureau’s 2018-2022 American Community Survey (ACS) estimates. The ACS covers 40+ topics used for planning and analyses for local areas. Topics include, among other things: age, children, veterans, commuting, education, income, and employment. The Census Bureau publishes annual ACS estimates for geographic areas with populations of 65,000 or more and 5-year estimates for all geographic areas down to sub-county census block groups.  In order to compare state and county estimates, this summary includes estimates obtained from the 5-year ACS estimates rather than the 1-year ACS estimates. Because these are sample based estimates, margins of error are published with the data to enable comparisons to previous estimates and estimates for other geographic areas. More information and guidance on the ACS can be found at: ACS Information Guide.

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