(BLOG POST) Immigrants Keep New Jersey Growing

Guest Blog Post, Tim Evans, Director of Research, New Jersey Future.

Immigrants constitute an increasingly crucial aspect of the state’s economic, social, and cultural fabrics. Almost one out of every four New Jerseyans (23.4%) was born in another country,[1]the second-highest foreign-born percentage among the 50 states (California is first, at 26.7%), making New Jersey a top destination for immigrants. The national rate is 13.7%.

Of the 84 municipalities with the greatest concentrations of immigrants (30% or more foreign-born), the majority (57) are in the urban core of North Jersey: 32 are in Bergen County, 11 are in Hudson County (including every municipality in the county except Hoboken), five are in Essex County, five are in Passaic County, and four are in Union County. Another 22 are in Central Jersey, with 11 in Middlesex County, five in Somerset County, three in Mercer County, two in Monmouth County, and one in Hunterdon County. Of the remaining five, four are in Morris County and one is in Atlantic County.

Nine counties—Sussex, Warren, Ocean, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, and Cape May—have no municipalities in which at least 30% of the residents are foreign-born. Immigrant populations are less prominent in South Jersey and in the rural northwestern part of the state than in North and Central Jersey.

Immigrants have been the main factor keeping New Jersey’s population change in positive territory for a while now, helping to make up for the fact that New Jersey experiences net losses in domestic migration to other states. As far back as 2005, New Jersey Future notedthat “without the influx of international immigrants, New Jersey’s population growth rate between 2000 and 2005 would have been an anemic 0.3 percent, as opposed to the actual rate of 3.6 percent.” From 2010 to 2019, the state would actually have lost population if not for international immigration.

New 2020 Census populations illustrate New Jersey’s continuing reliance on immigration magnets for population growth. While data on place of birth are not yet available for 2020, places with high percentages of immigrants as of 2019 generally grew faster than the rest of the state between the 2010 and 2020 Censuses. As a group, the 84 municipalities with a foreign-born percentage of 30% or more grew by 8.9% over the decade, compared to the statewide rate of 5.7%. The 28 municipalities with the highest percentages of immigrants (40% foreign-born or more) grew by 10.1%, nearly double the state’s growth rate. The places that are most attractive to immigrants tend to be the places that have grown the fastest over the past decade.

Overcoming Historic Undercounting

Part of the reason for the overlap between high-growth municipalities and municipalities with high foreign-born percentages is that the same urban centers—especially in North Jersey—that have traditionally attracted people from other countries have also been attracting young adultsover the last decade and a half. The trend back toward older, walkable centers has reversed several decades’ worth of outward suburban expansion and enabled many previously struggling cities and older towns to post their first big population gains in many years—aided by their continuing status as immigrant destinations.

Some of the apparent growth in places with high concentrations of immigrants may also be a function of stepped-up efforts to reach out to hard-to-count populations, including immigrants (especially those who are undocumented or those with limited English proficiency), for the 2020 Census. When the 2020 Census numbers were tallied at the municipal level, many of the state’s cities posted growth rates far in excess of what had been predictedby the Census Bureau’s Annual Population Estimates program. Among the places where the annual estimates program most significantly underestimated the actual 2020 Census counts—the 13 municipalities in which the 2020 Census population exceeded the 2020 estimate by at least 5,000 people—four have foreign-born percentages in excess of 40%: Edison (46.9% foreign-born), Elizabeth (46.6%), Jersey City (41.8%), and Paterson (40.6%). In all four of these municipalities, it was also true that more than 20% of the population were non-citizens as of 2019, another factor that can make people reluctant to be counted. Four more of the 13 municipalities with the largest underestimates have foreign-born percentages between 30% and 40%: Clifton (36.9%), Irvington (35.7%), Newark (31.8%), and Bayonne (30.9%), and in each of these, the percentage of non-citizens exceeds 13%. (The statewide non-citizenship rate is 9.8%.)

In many of these cases, the “surprise” growth was not surprising to local leaders, but instead resulted from deliberate efforts to count particular sub-populations that have been missed in the past. Paterson, for example, created a “Complete Count Committee” in advance of the Census and conducted creative outreach efforts to reach historically undercounted people, including partnering with schools to educate kids about the importance of being counted and hosting a town hall with the Spanish-language TV network Univision.

The fact that annual estimates were clearly not accounting for actual population growth in certain urban centers points to the importance of the all-out effort of the decennial Census to count everybody—and of the efforts of local officials to make sure that happens by engaging with the public in advance and making them aware of the benefits of being counted. Public efforts to encourage participation in the Census should be standard practice to make sure that places that host large immigrant populations (among other hard-to-count individuals) get their fair share of federal funding from programs that award funds on a per-capita basis. Such funding should also help these older cities and towns bring their infrastructure up to date, making them better positioned to accommodate demand for new growth driven by demographic changes.

[1]As of the 2019 American Community Survey, the most recent data on immigration available from the Census Bureau