Immigration Boom: Levels Back to 19th Century Levels

Immigration has been a hot button issue in both the United States and over much of Europe. Has immigration risen substantially? We examine the issue below.

How Big Is the Immigrant Population?

Compared to previous decades, the immigrant population is large.  The figure below charts out the ratio of migrants to the overall population since 1850.  It uses Census data compiled by the Migration Policy Institute.


Throughout much of the 19th century, America’s borders were largely open to immigration. America began to restrict immigration at the beginning of the 20th century.  Its immigrant stock fell as immigrants died and were not replaced by new immigration. By the 1970s, immigration reached a low point, after which the country progressively opened its borders. By the 2010s, the country’s immigrant stock is roughly where it was during the 19th century.

The Changing Composition of Immigration

Not only has the number of immigrants risen, but so has teh composition of the immigrant population. The Migration Policy Institute’s Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova note:

In 2014, Mexican immigrants accounted for approximately 28 percent of the 42.4 million foreign born in the United States, making them by far the largest immigrant group in the country. India, closely trailed by China (including Hong Kong but not Taiwan), and the Philippines were the next largest countries of origin, accounting for about 5 percent each. El Salvador, Vietnam, Cuba, and Korea (3 percent each), as well as the Dominican Republic and Guatemala (2 percent each), rounded out the top ten. Together, immigrants from these ten countries represented close to 60 percent of the U.S. immigrant population in 2014.

The predominance of Latin American and Asian immigration in the late 20th and early 21st centuries starkly contrasts with the trend seen in 1960 when immigrants largely originated from Europe. Italian-born immigrants made up 13 percent of the foreign born in 1960, followed by those born in Germany and Canada (about 10 percent each). In the 1960s no single country accounted for more than 15 percent of the total immigrant population.

So, not only have the raw numbers risen, but their composition has changed. In contrast to fifty years ago, immigrants come mainly from non-white or Hispanic countries, and today’s migrant population has one large group from a common origin (Mexico).

Anxiety over Immigration

A rising tide of non-white and Hispanic immigrants, and a perceived large influx of a particular community, evokes anxiety among those who fear or harbor animosity towards these ethnic groups. These groups are often blamed with damaging the economic fortunes of native Americans, while pushing up crime. The data suggests that there is little basis to arguments linking immigration to crime – immigrants are more law-abiding than natives, and crime has generally been falling during this long growth in the immigration stock. The argument linking immigration to the native-born population’s economic problems is far more complex, and there is little reason to believe that people would be better off economically if immigration were to be cut (I will save that for another entry).

Still, the high level of salience attached to immigration in our policy debates reflects the fact that it is a real and major trend. America is certainly becoming a national of immigrants again.