The number of American immigrants, or residents born abroad, has reached an all-time high of 46.2 million. This figure is the highest number of immigrants ever recorded in a government survey or US census dating back to 1850.
This record number is more than four times greater than the country’s 9.6 million immigrants 50 years ago. Since then, the American population has grown by 60 percent.
Today, U.S. residents born abroad make up 14.2 percent of the nation’s population. This percentage is three times higher than the proportion of 4.7% in 1970, which is the lowest in the United States, and slightly lower than the country’s record of 14.8% in 1890.
Also, for the first time in American history, the demographic contribution of immigration exceeded natural increase, which is simply the difference between births and deaths.
Between July 2020 and July 2021, the U.S. population grew 0.1%, the lowest growth rate since the nation’s founding. The country gained an additional 392,665 people, bringing the population to 331.8 million.
Of the country’s population increase during this 12-month period, immigration accounted for 62 percent of the gain and natural increase 38 percent. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic increasing deaths, the pandemic has contributed to fewer births compared to recent years.
The countries of origin of immigrants have changed considerably since the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act. While in 1960 about 84 percent of American immigrants came from European countries and Canada, today those countries represent 13 percent of the foreign-born.
Today’s immigrant population is made up of Mexicans and other Latin Americans, with each group making up about 25 percent. Immigrants from Asia are at 28 percent, China and India at 6 percent each, and the Philippines at 4 percent. The remaining 9% come from other regions.
American immigrants are more settled in the country than in the past. In 2018, for example, nearly three-quarters of American immigrants had resided in the country for more than a decade.
The vast majority, over 75 percent, of the foreign-born American population are legal residents of the country. The rest, almost 25 percent, are considered unauthorized migrants.
As a result of the Immigration Reform and Control Act 1986, also known as the Reagan Amnesty, which legalized most unauthorized immigrants who arrived before January 1, 1982, their numbers declined. stopped growing. From 1990 to 2007, for example, the number of illegal immigrants more than tripled, from 3.5 million to a record 12.2 million in 2007.
Reagan-style amnesty attempts for today’s unauthorized immigrants have been proposed by the Biden administration. Immigration reform has stalled several times in Congress, however, and the prospects for paving a path to citizenship anytime soon do not look promising.
In the absence of reform, some cities, the most recent being New York, allow non-citizens and “Dreamers” to vote in municipal elections. Some states, including Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, and Florida, have passed rules anticipating attempts to pass similar election laws.
Estimates of the unauthorized immigrant population vary by methodology, time period and data sources. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that 11.4 million unauthorized migrants lived in the country in 2018, or 3.4% of the population.
The number of unauthorized migrants attempting to enter the United States recently reached its highest level in more than 20 years. In May, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported intercepting 180,034 unauthorized migrants, the highest monthly total since 2000. In November, CBP encountered 173,620 illegal franchisees in the southern border, an increase of 140% compared to November 2020.
In fiscal year 2021, nearly 2 million unauthorized migrants came into contact with immigration law enforcement, of which around 88% resulted in deportations. In addition, a growing number of unauthorized migrants come from countries other than Central America, including Cuba, Ecuador, Haiti, Venezuela and some African countries.
The Census Bureau expects the number of immigrants living in America to continue to increase over the next several decades, reaching about 54 million by 2030 and 65 million by 2050. These projections represent about 15 percent of the population in 2030 and 17 percent in 2050, with both proportions above the country’s historic high levels between the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
International migration is expected to overtake natural increase as the main driver of population growth in the coming decades. With the overall population of the United States aging and baby boomers reaching older ages, deaths are expected to increase faster than births. Therefore, by the middle of the century, immigration is expected to contribute twice as much to the American population as the natural increase.
However, as we have seen in recent years, immigration is sensitive to economic, social and political conditions as well as to public health conditions. These conditions and circumstances are difficult to anticipate and can change abruptly, as has been the case with the coronavirus pandemic.
The projections prepared by the Census Bureau are based on historical trends and offer several assumptions about future immigration based largely on recent levels. In addition to the main series projection, alternative scenarios of high, low and zero immigration levels are also prepared.
Over the next decades, the population projections in the main series assume an annual level of net immigration of 1.1 million migrants. At this level, the U.S. population is expected to be around 405 million by 2060, an increase of 22% from the current population. However, if immigration were to stop, the U.S. population in 2060 would be 320 million, almost 4% lower than today.
In sum, the key message is that immigration will most likely continue to be a major, if not predominant, determinant of US population growth. Therefore, US immigration can be expected to continue to reach historic highs.
Joseph Chamie is a consultant demographer, former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters”.