Plant populations migrating in response to climate change will have to colonize established communities. Even if a population disperses to a new region with a favorable climate, interactions with other species may prevent its establishment and further spread. The potential of these species to grow along with residents will be a critical factor controlling their response to climate change. To determine the capacity of migrating species to colonize established communities we conducted extensive long-term transplant experiments where potential tree migrant species, i.e. species within ‘migration range,’ were planted side by side with resident ones. Potential immigrants were selected to be representative species of their native communities. For both groups, residents and potential migrants (17 species), we compared their growth response along gradients in soil moisture and light availability. Rather than manipulate climate directly, we exploited natural microclimatic gradients and the fluctuations in climate that occurred during the 5-year experiment. Experimental results were used to estimate growth in the context of novel climate and relevant establishment factors. Results suggest that potential immigrant species had similar growth rates in the new environment than those from resident species ensuring their ability to establish in the area. However, contrary to our expectations, the soil moisture requirements for the immigrant group were similar to those of the resident species. These results could have major implications for vegetation changes under the predicted drier climate for the region. If it is the case that neither resident species nor potential migrants are able to maintain stable populations, the region may experience a decline in local biodiversity.