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Oklahoma drawing more people from other countries than other states

This drone image of the Bower at Lee is looking southeast toward the OKC skyline. While Oklahoma City is expected to continue to grow, the last few years Oklahoma has seen more international migration than domestic. [Dave Morris/The Oklahoman]
This drone image of the Bower at Lee is looking southeast toward the OKC skyline. While Oklahoma City is expected to continue to grow, the last few years Oklahoma has seen more international migration than domestic. [Dave Morris/The Oklahoman]

The number of people moving to Oklahoma from other countries has far outpaced residents relocating from other states in the past eight years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

More people actually left Oklahoma than moved here from 2017 to 2018. If births had not outnumbered deaths, the state would have lost population, Census estimates show.

“Oklahoma’s overall population growth the last two years has been less than 0.3%, the slowest it’s been since 1990,’’ said Chad Wilkerson, vice president and Oklahoma City Branch executive for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

“The driving force for Oklahoma’s slow population growth has been a decline in domestic migration each of the last three years.”

Wilkerson released a report in late March analyzing movements in and out of Oklahoma over the last several years.

He said in an interview last week he was surprised by the Census figures released this month estimating that Oklahoma had a net migration loss of 202 people. According to the estimates, 4,474 left Oklahoma, while 4,272 moved here from other countries.

“I would have expected maybe some domestic out-migration in 2016 and maybe 2017 after the oil price bust in 2014 and ’15,” Wilkerson said.

“But for it to continue on to 2018 when the economy here really did pretty well in 2018 and the second half of 2017 was pretty surprising.”

Last year was the second in a row in which more people, international and domestic, left Oklahoma than moved to the state. And it was the third in a row in which the state had a net loss in domestic migration.

Russell R. Evans, associate professor of economics at Oklahoma City University, called the negative net migration in 2018 “a bit of a shock.”

That put Oklahoma in the company of states like California, where people are leaving because of the high cost of living, and Kansas, where growth is stunted by geography, he said.

“Oklahoma would probably prefer not to be on this list,” said Evans, executive director of the Steven C. Agee Economic Research and Policy Institute.

Since April 2010, Oklahoma has gained 52,615 residents from other nations and 24,159 from other states.

International migration includes native and foreign-born populations and the net movement of U.S. military personnel between the United States and overseas, according to the Census Bureau.

Evans said Oklahoma was not unusual in gaining more international than domestic residents. Between 2017 and 2018, that was true of 34 states, he said, and between 2010 and 2018, it was true of 35 states.

Wilkerson said the highest rates of international migration between 2017 and 2018 came in Oklahoma counties with large cities, universities, military bases and agricultural operations like meatpacking plants.

In his study, Wilkerson found the biggest group of people leaving Oklahoma was college graduates — a tough loss for any state.

“We actually had in-migration from high school (graduates) and below,” Wilkerson said.

“That actually continued a trend. Even from our good years from 2005 to ’15, we had a little bit of loss of college graduates — less than we did in the '80s and '90s but still a slight loss.”

The Oklahoma City metro area is still enjoying a net increase in relocations, as is Tulsa to a lesser degree, Wilkerson said.

"Some of that is from rural Oklahoma," he said. "But there’s a limit to that as well. There’s only so many people who can move from rural Oklahoma to metros."

In general, domestic migration is toward fast-growing urban areas, while international migration is toward rural areas with low land and housing prices, Evans said.

In the next two decades, he said, “Oklahoma’s demographics will follow geography: Oklahoma City will be a much larger city than Tulsa, and Oklahoma City and Tulsa will combine to account for an increasing share of the state’s total population and economic activity.

"The economic divide between urban and rural areas of the state will grow, with rural areas increasingly influenced by the net in-migration of an international population."

Chris Casteel

Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. Casteel covered the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City. From 1990 through 2016, he was the... Read more ›