America’s immigrant share of its population stagnated under President Trump for multiple years for the first time since the Great Recession—possibly for the first time during an economic boom since the 1960s. This fact should be assessed against a backdrop in which the United States already had one of the most restrictive migration policies in the world.
New statistics from the United Nations for 2019 confirm that the United States ranks in the bottom third among wealthy countries both in terms of foreign‐born share of its population and per‐capita increase in foreign‐born population. President Trump’s closure of the borders in 2020 has only added restrictions to an already extremely closed system.
Many people call the United States the “most generous country in the world” on immigration, but while it does have the most immigrants in an absolute sense, America is also one of the wealthiest and most populous countries on earth, so a proper comparison would control for wealth and size.
According to the United Nations, 15 percent of the U.S. population was foreign‐born. Unlike the Census Bureau estimates, the United Nations includes Americans born abroad to American parents who are not “immigrants” in the legal sense since they became U.S. citizens by birth, but for cross‐country comparisons where citizenship laws vary, it’s necessary to include them.
Of the 217 countries and semi‐autonomous territories that the United Nations provides population counts for (plus Taiwan), the United States ranks 61st in the world for both foreign‐born share of its population and its per‐capita increase in its foreign‐born population from 2017 to 2019.
As seen in Table 1, among the 57 countries or territories with a per‐capita GDP over $20,000, the United States ranked 40th—or the 30th percentile—for foreign‐born share of the population. The average wealthy country had a foreign‐born population share of 30 percent, double the U.S. share. The United States similarly ranked 39th for per‐capita increase in its foreign‐born population from 2017 to 2019. Its population grew 0.27 percent from foreigners compared to an average of 1.8 percent for all wealthy countries.
Other countries maintain foreign‐born shares far higher than the United States. The United Arab Emirates had the highest foreign‐born share in the world at 88 percent. Other Gulf states—Kuwait and Qatar—also had most of their populations born abroad. A number of Island nations and city states rank highly on this list, but Australia and Switzerland both had foreign‐born shares of about 30 percent. Israel, New Zealand, Canada, and Austria had between 20 and 23 percent.
Its worth noting as well, as seen in Figure 1, that the United States is “cheating” even to rank as highly as it does because so many of its immigrants are illegally present in the country. In other words, if the U.S. had enforced its laws as written, it would have an even smaller foreign‐born population. About a fifth of the U.S. foreign‐born population was born abroad, according to the Pew Research Center estimate, so taking out those admissions would drop America even further back. Of course, some immigrants live illegally in other countries, but none to the same extent as the United States.
The idea that America is the world’s “most generous” country on immigration is among the world’s most revealing phrases. Yes, it’s misleading even in the sense that it is intended, but more importantly, America doesn’t need to be “generous” to those coming to enjoy the American dream. It just needs to not round them up, not deport them, and not keep them out. That’s not “generosity” or a handout. That’s basic respect for the liberty of other human beings.
As I’ve written before, it is also in the country’s self‐interest not to prohibit foreigners from living and working in America. Allowing people to freely move and work where they want is not charity. It is an expansion of the free market and allows people to contribute to the economic prosperity of the country and expand the pie for everyone. Unfortunately, our country’s policies—even before Trump—don’t reflect these principles. It’s long past time that they should.