For the foreseeable future, immigration will fuel US population growth

The number of America’s immigrants, or foreign-born residents, has reached a historic high of 46.2 million. That figure is the largest number of immigrants ever recorded in any government survey or U.S. census going back to 1850. 

That record-breaking number is more than four times as large as the 9.6 million immigrants in the country 50 years ago. Since then, America’s population has increased by 60 percent. 

Today’s U.S. foreign-born residents represent 14.2 percent of the nation’s population. That percentage is three times as large as the 1970 proportion of 4.7 percent, which is America’s historic low, and slightly less than the country’s record high of 14.8 percent in 1890. 

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Also, for the first time in America’s history, the demographic contribution of immigration has surpassed natural increase, which is simply the difference between births and deaths.  

Between July 2020 to July 2021, America’s population grew by 0.1 percent, which is the lowest rate of growth since the nation’s founding. The country gained 392,665 additional people, increasing the population to 331.8 million.   

Of the country’s demographic increase during that 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 contributed to fewer births compared to recent years. 

The immigrants’ countries of origin have changed markedly since the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act. Whereas in 1960 about 84 percent of U.S. immigrants were from European nations and Canada, today those countries account for 13 percent of the foreign-born.  

Today’s immigrant population is made up of Mexicans and other Latin Americans, each group at around 25 percent. Immigrants from Asia are at 28 percent, with China and India each a 6 percent and the Philippines at 4 percent. The remaining 9 percent come from other regions.

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America’s immigrants are more settled in the country than in the past. In 2018, for example, nearly three-quarters of U.S. immigrants had resided in the country for more than a decade.  

The large majority, more than 75 percent, of the U.S. foreign-born population are lawful residents in the country. The remainder, nearly 25 percent, are estimated to be unauthorized migrants.  

Following the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, also known as the Reagan Amnesty, which legalized most unauthorized immigrants who arrived prior to Jan. 1, 1982, their numbers have grown steadily. From 1990 to 2007, for example, the number of unauthorized immigrants more than tripled, increasing from 3.5 million to a record high of 12.2 million in 2007.  

Attempts for a Reagan-type amnesty for today's unauthorized immigrants have been proposed by the Biden administration. However, immigration reform has repeatedly stalled in Congress and the prospects of providing a pathway to citizenship any time soon do not appear promising.

Given the lack of reform, some towns, the latest being New York City, are allowing non-citizens and “Dreamers” to vote in municipal elections. Some states, including Alabama, Arizona, Colorado and Florida, have adopted rules preempting attempts to adopt similar voting laws.

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Estimates of the unauthorized immigrant population vary depending on the methodology, the time period and the data sources. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that 11.4 million unauthorized migrants were living in the country in 2018, amounting to 3.4 percent of the population.

The number of unauthorized migrants attempting to enter the U.S has recently reached the highest level in more than 20 years. In May, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported that it caught 180,034 unauthorized migrants, which is the largest monthly total since 2000. In November the CBP encountered 173,620 illegal crossers at the southern border, a 140 percent increase compared to November 2020.  

In the fiscal year 2021, nearly 2 million unauthorized migrants came in contact with immigration enforcement, with approximately 88 percent of them resulting in expulsions. In addition, increasing numbers of unauthorized migrants are coming from countries outside Central America, including Cuba, Ecuador, Haiti, Venezuela and some African nations.

The Census Bureau expects the number of immigrants living in America to continue increasing over the coming decades, reaching about 54 million by 2030 and 65 million by 2050. Those projections represent about 15 percent of the population in 2030 and 17 percent in 2050, with both proportions greater than the country’s historic high levels around the late 19th to the early 20th century. 

International migration is expected to exceed natural increase as the principal driver of population growth in the coming decades. With the aging of America’s overall population and baby boomers reaching the oldest ages, deaths are expected to increase more rapidly than births. Consequently, by mid-century immigration is expected to be contributing twice as many people to America’s population as natural increase. 

However, as has been witnessed during past years, immigration is sensitive to economic, social and political conditions as well as public health circumstances. Those conditions and circumstances are difficult to anticipate and may change abruptly, as has been witnessed with the coronavirus pandemic. 

The projections prepared by the Census Bureau rely 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.  

In the coming decades, the population projections in the main series assume an annual net immigration level of 1.1 million migrants. At that level, America’s population is expected to be about 405 million in 2060, an increase of 22 percent over today’s population. However, if immigration were to stop, America’s population in 2060 is projected to be 320 million, or nearly 4 percent smaller than it is today. 

In sum, the key message is immigration will most likely continue to be a major, if not the predominant determinant of U.S. population growth. Consequently, America’s immigration can be expected to continue reaching historic highs.  

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a 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."