Immigration Facts
Summary Demographic State Data (and Source)
Population (2012 CB est.) 8,456,243
Population (2000 CB est.) 5,689,283
Foreign-Born Population (2012 CB est.) 291,641
Foreign-Born Population (2000 CB est.) 159,004
Share Foreign-Born (2012) 4.5 %
Share Foreign-Born (2000) 2.5%
Naturalized U.S. Citizens (2012 CB est.): 105,025
Share Naturalized (2012) 36.0 %
Legal Immigrant Admission (DHS 2001 – 2012) 74,436
Refugee Admission (HHS 2000 – 2012) 19,035
Illegal Alien Population (2010 FAIR est.) 120,000
Costs of Illegal Aliens (2009 FAIR) $546,812,966
Projected 2050 Population (2006 FAIR) 8,463,000

State Population

According to the Census Bureau, the population of Tennessee in 2012 was 8,456,243 residents.

Between 2000 (population 5,689,283) and 2012, the state's average annual population change was 62,609 residents. That was an annual average change of 1.0 percent. The comparable national annual rate of change was 0.9 percent.

Between 1990 (population 4,877,185) and 2000, the state's annual average population change was 81,210 residents. The annual average rate of change was 1.6 percent compared to the national rate of change of 1.2 percent.

Foreign-Born Population

According to the Census Bureau the foreign-born population of Tennessee was about 291,641 persons in 2012. This estimate meant a foreign-born population share of 4.5 percent. The chart above shows the long-term change in the state's foreign-born population based on Census Bureau data.

Foreign-Born Change

Between 2000 and 2012 the Census Bureau estimate indicates an average annual rate of change in the foreign-born population of about 10,828 people, compared to the state's annual average population change of about 62,609  people. That is a 17.3  percent share of the state's population change (not including the children born in the United States to illegal aliens). The foreign-born population grew by 83.4 percent between 2000 and 2012.

Immigration also contributes to population growth through the U.S.-born children of immigrants. Nationally the share of births to the foreign-born is about double their share of the population. A 9.0 percent share of the state's current births is large enough to account for about 7,230 births a year. Combining the average increase in the foreign-born population and estimated immigrant births suggests that immigration may account for about 18,055 persons added to the state's population annually, i.e., nearly 28.8 percent of the state's overall population increase.

As of 2012 about 60.5 percent of Tennessee's foreign-born population had arrived in the state since 2000. This compares with the national average 40.9 percent. In 2000, 57.7 percent of the state's foreign-born population that had arrived since the previous Census.

Foreign-Born Characteristics

An indicator of the change in Tennessee's immigrant population may be seen in data on the share of the population over five years of age that speaks a language other than English at home. Between 2000 and 2012, the share of non-English speakers changed from 4.8 percent to 6.7 percent. In 2000, 42.2 percent of those persons in also said they spoke English less than very well. In the 2012 estimate, the share was 39.2 percent that spoke English less than very well. In 2012 Spanish speakers were 57.9 percent of those who spoke other than English at home, and 64.1 percent of those who spoke English less than very well.

The chart above shows the regional composition of the state's foreign-born population and how it has changed from between 2000 and 2012.


Census Bureau data in 2012 indicate that 105,025 residents of Tennessee, or 36.0 percent of the foreign-born population in Tennessee, were naturalized U.S. citizens, compared to 53,185 residents, or 33.4 percent, in 2000.

Nationally, 40.3 percent of the foreign-born population was naturalized in 2000, and 45.8 percent in 2012.

Net International Migration (NIM)

Data from the Current Population Survey (CPS), the Census Bureau estimated that between 2000 and 2012, the change in Tennessee's population resulting from net international migration has been about 18,410 people. It was 16.1 percent of total change (not including the children born to the immigrants after their arrival in the United States). 1   The remainder was due to net domestic migration and natural change (births minus deaths).


  1. A negative percentage results when there was an overall population decrease. A percentage greater than 100 percent results when domestic migration is negative, i.e, a net loss from interstate migration.

Immigrant Admissions

Recent "green card" recipients who intend to reside in Tennessee were 801 percent above admissions just after adoption of the current immigration system in 1965. During the 1965 to 1969 period, annual admissions averaged about 941 persons. During the most recent five years, annual admissions averaged about 8,480 persons. Immigrant admissions data are from the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics.

The chart above shows recent immigrant admissions and the cumulative amount of immigrant admissions since FY'65. The cumulative total of immigrant admissions to Tennessee between fiscal years 1965 and 2012 has been 174,761 persons.

The data for fiscal years 1989-91 were artificially raised by the inclusion of former illegal aliens who were amnestied in 1986. According to INS data (1991) the number of amnesty applicants from Tennessee was 2,261 (1,062 pre-1982 residents and 1,199 agricultural workers). These data were published by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and reported in "Report on the Legalized Alien Population," March 1992.

Admissions by Nationality: FY'96 - FY'05

The table below furnishes INS data by nationality on the immigrants who were admitted for residence in Tennessee between 1996 and 2005.

The INS data are for nationals of the countries with the largest number of immigrants admitted or adjusted to legal residence each year since 1996. The absence of data means that the total number of admissions to the United States by nationals of that country was not enough to merit detailed reporting in that year.

The Department of Homeland Security website has detailed data on immigrant admissions since FY'03 by year and by source country and intended state of residence. (See http://www.dhs.gov/files/statistics/publications/yearbook.shtm) then select the desired year, click Legal Permanent Residents, data and then select "supplemental table 1."

Chart of Immigrant Admission by Fiscal Year


Tennessee has received 19,035 refugees over the most recent ten fiscal years including 1,236 refugees in fiscal year 2012. The chart above shows the annual admissions over the last ten years and the cumulative total of those admissions using data complied by the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The U.S. government program that distributes new refugees among the states is the only immigration program that provides state governments the opportunity to participate in deciding how many newcomers will come to that state each year.

Illegal Aliens

Tennessee Fiscal Costs
Due to Illegal Aliens
           ($M) (Pct.)
K-12 educ. $231.80 42.4%
LEP educ. $49.80 9.1%
Medicaid+ $53.50 9.8%
SCHIP $14.20 2.6%
Justice $41.40 7.6%
Welfare+ $55.90 10.2%
General $100.10 18.3%
Total $546.80  
Tax receipts $50.30  
Net Cost $496.50  
Source: "The State Cost Studies"

FAIR Estimate - FAIR estimates the illegal alien population of Tennessee as of 2010 was about 120,000 persons. This is part of an overall estimate of the U.S. illegal alien population of about 11,900,000 persons.

DHS Estimate - The current estimate by DHS of the illegal alien population in Tennessee was n/a in 2012. The DHS estimate is available for only the 10 states with the largest illegal alien populations. The DHS estimate of the national illegal alien population in 2012 was 11,430,000.

Other Estimates - The Pew Hispanic Center estimates the illegal alien population of the state at 140,000 as of 2010.

Fiscal Cost of Illegal Aliens

FAIR's most recent estimate of the cost outlays due to illegal immigration and tax receipts from illegal aliens in Tennessee are as shown on the right:

Limited English Proficiency Students

Data are not available nationally on immigrant students (either legally or illegally resident in the United States) who are enrolled in primary and secondary schools (K-12). However, a large majority of these students enrolled in Limited English Proficiency/English Language Learning (LEP/ELL) instruction programs may be assumed to be children of either legal or illegal immigrants with a predominance of children of illegal aliens.

In Tennessee, LEP public school enrollment in 2010 ( 30,537) was 276.6 percent of LEP enrollment a decade earlier. By contrast, overall K-12 enrollment in the state was 106.2 percent of enrollment a decade earlier.

Population Projection

FAIR projected Tennessee's population in 2050 likely would be between 8,364,000 million and 8,463,000 million with current levels of immigration. Alternatively, the population could be lower (7,850,000) if immigration were reduced to a level where it balanced the number of U.S. residents leaving to reside outside of the United states, i.e., zero-net immigration. See "Projecting the U.S. Population to 2050: Four Immigration Scenarios," FAIR 2006.

Foreign Students

Data compiled by the Institute of International Education (IIE) record the number of foreign students attending post-secondary school in Tennessee as 7,312 in 2013.

The chart above illustrates the change in the number of foreign students attending school in Tennessee since 1997.

For information on foreign student issues see: Foreign Students in the United States.

Immigration Impact


Traffic: Tennessee highways saw a 44 percent increase in traffic between 1990 and 2008. Traffic growth over time has caused 43 percent of the state’s major urban highways to be congested.1

The typical Memphis commuter spent about 25 extra hours in traffic in 2007 due to congestion-related delays, burning about 15 gallons of fuel to compensate. Nashville-Davidson’s delays were even more severe, with 37 hours and 23 gallons of fuel wasted per commuter, and Knoxville commuters lost 26 hours and 16 gallons. The time and fuel lost by commuters in these areas was valued at $884 million.2 About 13 percent of Tennessee commuters had a commute of 45 minutes or longer in 2008.3

Vehicles in and around Knox County drive nearly 13 million miles a day — and the figure is growing about 400,000 miles annually.4

Unfortunately, road maintenance has not fully kept up with traffic volume. One in six (16%) of Tennessee roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and 20 percent of its bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Drivers pay the cost of overdue road maintenance. The typical Tennessee driver pays $182 per year in additional maintenance and operating costs due to road conditions.5

Crowded Housing: An estimated 39,736 of Tennessee’s housing units were classified as crowded in 2008, defined as units with more than one occupant per room. This amounted to 1.7 percent of the state’s housing units. In addition, 6,928 were severely crowded, with at least 1.5 occupants per room.6 Nationwide, children in immigrant families were three times as likely to live in crowded conditions as children in native families (27 percent to 9 percent). In the state, 22 percent of children in immigrant families live in crowded housing, compared to just 7 percent of children with native-born parents.7

Development and Urban Sprawl: The amount of developed land in Tennessee increased by 1,398,300 acres from 1982 to 2007, growing at a pace of 43,200 acres per year over the last ten years of that period.8

Urban sprawl is devouring 3,000 Shelby County acres — the equivalent of about ten Overton Parks — each year.9 Knox County and its contiguous counties have lost more than 143,300 acres of farmland in the last 15 years — and that is roughly one-fourth the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In Knox County alone, 221 farms and more than 20,000 acres have been turned into home sites, shopping malls, and parking lots. More than 7,000 acres of cropland have been entirely removed from production.

Population growth and urban sprawl are the greatest threats facing Southern forests, according to the federal Southern Forest Resources Assessment. Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau and ridge-and-valley section between the plateau and the high mountains along the state's eastern border are especially susceptible to forest fragmentation.10 Tennessee ranks 8th in the nation for prime farmland acreage loss to urbanization.11

A study of urban sprawl between 1970 and 1990 that calculated the impact of population increase and per capita land use found that 145.5 square miles of additional land were consumed by urban sprawl in the Memphis metropolitan area, and 39.1 percent of that sprawl was attributable to population increase. In the Chattanooga metro area, which crosses into Georgia, sprawl consumed an additional 140 square miles and population increase accounted for 36 percent of the increase, and population increase was attributable to 71.8 percent of 140.0 acres of sprawl in the Nashville area.12

Air Pollution: In 2010, every Tennessee county graded by the American Lung Association for risk of high ozone exposure received an "F." Only four other states have this distinction (Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island).13

As population increases, pollution usually rises along with it. Residents of all four major metropolitan areas in Tennessee are breathing unhealthy amounts of air pollution according to the American Lung Association.14 The Great Smoky Mountains is the nation's most polluted national park, with air quality rivaling that of Los Angeles. Ozone levels in the Smokies have violated federal health standards more than 175 times since 1998.15

In Chattanooga, an EPA-funded study found that 17 toxic chemicals are present at levels that could cause cancer.16

Poverty: Tennessee’s immigrants are more likely to be poor than their native-born counterparts. In 2007, 20.0 percent of foreign-born households were below the poverty line, compared to 15.7 percent of native households. An additional 13.8 percent of the foreign-born and 9.8 percent of native households were not in poverty but had incomes less than 1.5 times the poverty level.17 25.8 percent of children in immigrant families were poor in 2006, compared to 21.3 percent of native children.18

Solid Waste: Tennessee generates 1.27 tons of solid waste per capita each year.19 If this rate does not decrease, projected population growth between 2008 and 2050 will add over 2.8 million tons of solid waste to the state’s annual total.

Schools: Between 1990 and 2009, public school enrollment in Tennessee increased by an estimated 181,405 students, or 22.0 percent. 20 Enrollment is projected to grow by an additional 91,037 students between 2009 and 2018.21 Tennessee's student-teacher ratio of 16 ranks 37th in the U.S.22

In Polk County, student enrollment increases have pinched the school budget, requiring additional bus drivers, teachers, and equipment. In Bradley County, schools are adding temporary classrooms.23 Enrollment projections for Shelby County schools, where schools are already well over capacity, show steady growth.24 "In the southeast, all we see is all this development. No one cares whether or not we have the space to put the kids," says one school board member.25

Illegal Immigration in Tennessee

Tennessee has some of the nation's leading meat processors, several of which are owned by Tyson Foods, which has been charged with conspiring to smuggle illegal aliens to work at poultry plants. A 36-count indictment in Chattanooga charged Tyson Foods with violation of immigration laws in the hiring of illegal aliens. Fifteen plants in nine states, including ones in Shelbyville and Union City, have been implicated in the conspiracy.26

While Immigration and Naturalization Services arrests of illegal aliens have risen since September 11, 2001, the agency says it is unlikely to arrest "the average individual with no arrest record and no prior run-ins with INS," due to lack of manpower. The INS has only 20 agents to cover Tennessee, the east half of Arkansas, and the top half of Mississippi.

A flood of illegal aliens took advantage of a law passed in 2001 that allowed anyone who could prove Tennessee residency, whether they are in the country legally or not, to get a driver's license. That loophole has been closed.


  1. The Road Information Project (TRIP), "Key Facts about Tennessee’s Surface Transportation System and Federal Funding," May 2010.
  2. Texas Transportation Institute, "Urban Mobility Report 2009."
  3. American Community Survey, 2008 Estimates, Custom Data Table.
  4. Fred Brown, "Keeping the Farms," Knoxville News-Sentinel, November 4, 2001.
  5. The Road Information Project (TRIP), "Key Facts about Tennessee’s Surface Transportation System and Federal Funding," May 2010.
  6. American Community Survey, Three-Year Estimates 2006-2008. Data retrieved using ACS Custom Table tool.
  7. Kids Count Data Center, Kids Count Data Center, 2008 American Community Survey Data.
  8. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, "Summary Report: 2007 National Resources Inventory."
  9. Selected Housing Characteristics: 2005 Data Set - 2005 American Community Survey, American Fact Finder, U.S. Census Bureau.
  10. Morgan Simmons, "Development Looms as Biggest Threat to Southern Forests," Knoxville News-Sentinel, November 27, 2001.
  11. American Farmland Trust, "Farming on the Edge"
  12. Beck, Roy and Leon Kolankiewicz, "Weighing Sprawl Factors in Large U.S. Cities," NumbersUSA, March 2001.
  13. The American Lung Association, "State of the Air 2010."
  14. Stephanie Gaskell, "Study Ranks Tennessee Cities Among Those With Most Polluted Air," Associated Press, May 1, 2002.
  15. Duncan Mansfield, "Smoky Mountains Air as Bad as L.A. Smog," Chicago Sun-Times, September 24, 2002.
  16. Kathy Gilbert and Dave Flessner, "City's Pollution Comes from Cars," Chattanooga Times, January 16, 2002.
  17. Migration Information Source State Data (Migration Policy Institute)
  18. Urban Institute, Children of Immigrants Data Tool.
  19. Report Card for America's Infrastructure 2005," American Society of Civil Engineers
  20. "Table 34. Enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools, by state or jurisdiction: Selected years, fall 1990 through fall 2009," Digest of Education Statistics, Department of Education.
  21. "Table 4. Actual and projected numbers for enrollment in grades PK12 in public elementary and secondary schools, by region and state: Fall 2000 through fall 2018," National Center for Education Statistics, Department of Education.
  22. "Public Elementary and Secondary School Student Enrollment, High School Completions, and Staff From the Common Core of Data: School Year 2005-06', National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, June 2007.
  23. "Higher School Enrollments Concern Some Area Officials," Chattanooga Times, August 21, 2002.
  24. Katherine Cromer, "Projections Show Steady Growth for County Schools in 2002-2003," The Commercial Appeal, March 1, 2002.
  25. Katherine Cromer, "New School Urged for Southeast Shelby," Commercial Appeal, May 26, 2002.
  26. Linday Riddell, "INS Arresting More Illegals," Chattanooga Times, January 13, 2002.


Other Resources  

State Local Reform Organizations

State Representatives Voting Record


Updated December 2011