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Five facts on immigration in Charlotte and North Carolina

Attendees listen to the EQUALibrium LIVE discussion on Latino influence at the Charlotte Museum of History.
Jeff Cravotta
Cravotta Photography
Attendees listen to the EQUALibrium LIVE discussion on Latino influence at the Charlotte Museum of History.

This story first appeared as part of WFAE's EQUALibrium newsletter, exploring race and equity in the Charlotte region. Get the latest news and analysis in your inbox first by signing up here.

Charlotte’s international community was on full display this weekend at the 25th annual Excelente Awards, presented by WFAE news partner La Noticia. The winners — from Peru, Venezuela, Argentina and different parts of the U.S. — mingled with attendees who grew up in far corners of the globe (or right here in Charlotte), while being entertained by a troupe performing Latin dances from multiple regions.

It was a microcosm that highlighted Charlotte’s growing diversity and the city’s change from the Black/white racial dichotomy that typified much of the South for centuries. You can also see that growing diversity in the pockets of Vietnamese businesses in south and east Charlotte, neighborhoods full of Indian American residents in Ballantyne, a Brazilian market across from a Korean grocery store and restaurant on Monroe Road near Matthews.

But as complexity and diversity grow, it can be harder to stay grounded in the facts. Here are five basic things to know about immigration, and immigrant communities, in Charlotte.

  1. The number and proportion of immigrants are growing fast. More than 17% — one in six — people who live in Charlotte were born outside the U.S. That’s up from 11% in 2000. And it’s more than double the statewide proportion of immigrant population. But if you look at the raw numbers, the increase is even greater, since Charlotte’s population has grown since 2000. There are roughly 155,000 foreign-born residents in the city now, versus slightly less than 60,000 in the year 2000. That means while the city’s population has grown by just over 50%, the number of foreign-born residents came close to tripling within that same time.
  2. “Immigrant” doesn’t mean Latino. They’re often construed as near-synonymous, especially if you follow news coverage of the southern border. The biggest country of origin for immigrants in Charlotte is Mexico. The second-biggest: India. That trend is true statewide as well. Across North Carolina, the top five countries for immigrants are Mexico, India, Honduras, China and El Salvador, followed by Vietnam and the U.K.
    NC Department of Commerce
    NC Department of Commerce
  3. While the number of immigrants has grown in Charlotte, immigration isn’t just a big-city phenomenon. In places that have grown as agricultural and meatpacking centers, the percentage of foreign-born population is much higher than Charlotte’s: 22.4% in Candor, 27.6% in Faison, and more than 33% in Siler City, for example. And with the fifth-highest number of temporary agricultural workers, rural North Carolina work camps fill with laborers each summer, adding thousands of immigrant workers and swelling small-town populations for the season.
  4. The undocumented population isn’t a monolith. Much like “immigrant,” the word “undocumented” (or the older “illegal,” which the Associated Press Stylebook changed in 2013), probably also conjures up an image. Maybe someone sweating in a field or on a construction site, or hustling dishes in a restaurant. But there’s plenty of diversity within the undocumented population, too. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 58,000 Mecklenburg County residents aren’t authorized to be in the U.S. Of those, the group estimates 68% have been in the U.S. for more than 10 years; 14% are married to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident; 29% have some college, a bachelor’s degree or a higher degree; half are English-proficient; and 22% own a home. While construction is the most common industry, professional, scientific and management occupations are the second-most common — ahead of food services and manufacturing.
  5. Immigrants are more likely to be in the workforce. In North Carolina, 68.6% of immigrants are working, according to the North Carolina Department of Commerce. That compares to 59.8% of the U.S.-born population. That’s largely because immigrants are younger than the general population, and the state Department of Commerce says that makes immigrants an important source of workers as our state continues to go gray around the temples. “Due to an aging population, the state will experience slower growth in its working-age population over the coming decades. However, because immigrants tend to be in their prime working years, they directly increase the size of the workforce and partially offset the working-age population slowdown,” state Commerce Department officials wrote in an analysis. And it highlights the importance of immigrant workers to certain industries already facing a tight labor market — such as construction, where they account for 29% of all workers.
    NC Department of Commerce

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Ely Portillo has worked as a journalist in Charlotte for over a decade. Before joining WFAE, he worked at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Observer.