For the second year in a row, the proportion of the U.S. population who are immigrants did not increase, according to new numbers from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (its annual “mini‐census”). This is the first time since the Great Recession that multiple years have passed consecutively with no increase.
The stall also defies Census Bureau 2016 projections which had predicted more than a million more immigrants by 2019, and the change had already placed America on pace to have the lowest growth in its immigrant share of any decade since the 1960s before COVID-19 drastically reduced both legal and illegal entries in 2020.
Figure 1 shows the immigrant share of the U.S. population from 2000 to 2019. The share increased by 1.5 percentage points from 2000 to 2007 before dipping in 2008 through 2009 as the housing bubble burst and employment fell. The share then rose again by 1.2 percentage points through 2017 to 13.7 percent where it has stayed during President Trump’s term in office. The Census Bureau in 2017 projected that by 2019, 13.9 percent of the U.S. population would be immigrants.
Figure 2 shows how the actual immigrant population is already down by over a million people relative to the Census Bureau’s 2016 projections. The Census Bureau guessed that the number of immigrants would increase from July 2017 to July 2019 by 1.4 million when, in fact, it increased by little more than 400,000. The Census Bureau’s estimate for the increase in 2017 was 96 percent accurate, but only about 28 percent accurate for 2018 and 2019.
The falloff in the last couple of years is attributable to strong declines from all regions of the world except Oceania. In particular, the European immigrant population fell by 150,000 from July 2017 to July 2019. Northern American immigrants outside of Latin America also declined in absolute numbers. The Asian population grew by almost 200,000 in 2 years as opposed to nearly 500,000 in a single year from 2016 to 2017. The African population grew by 71,554 in 2019, which was half the increase from 2016 to 2017. Latin American immigrants increased by 70,000—half the rate of increase from 2016 to 2017.
The broader historical perspective is key as well. The increase in the immigrant share of the population was the least since the 1960s when it declined. The growth was 0.8 percentage point from 2010 to 2019—less than half the growth from 2000 to 2010.
The change comes despite a wave of more than a million Mexican and Central American asylum seekers and undocumented border crossers in 2019—most of whom were not returned that year. The fact is that it’s lower legal immigration and more immigrants leaving that is driving the decreases in immigrant population growth in the United States. Figure 4 shows how the number of legal immigrants admitted to legal permanent residence from abroad has declined steadily under President Trump by 158,826. But this decrease is not enough to explain lower immigrant population growth. Many immigrants must also be choosing to abandon the United States, such as those caught in decades‐long green card backlogs.
In a normal environment, immigration should have increased when unemployment reached historic lows. But the president’s anti‐immigration policies made that impossible, increasing deportations and imposing many new regulations on legal immigration. But it could also be that his mere presence has created a social and political environment that is seen as unfriendly toward immigrants.