America is a nation of immigrants, and throughout its history, it has received nearly 100 million immigrants. I almost wrote that America “welcomed” them, but the fact is that very few of those 100 million were broadly popular with the public when they arrived. They came nonetheless. They thrived, and those immigrants—at least those who stuck it out in the face of harassment and discrimination—and their descendants built the country that we have today.
The term “immigrants” refers to foreigners who come to the United States with the intention to settle permanently. They are distinct from “nonimmigrants” who make temporary visits to the country, such as tourists, students, and guest workers. Figure 1 provides the breakdown of immigrants by the last legal status that the immigrant held. An illegal immigrant who receives legal permanent residency is listed as a legal immigrant, even though he may have entered illegally or lived illegally in the United States at some point. It includes all immigrants since the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, but does not include slaves imported involuntarily to the United States (the legal slave trade ended in 1808).
Figure 2 breaks down the number of new legal permanent residents admitted annually from 1783 to 2018. The bars show the absolute figures and the line the number as a share of the U.S. population. The government didn’t collect annual statistics prior to 1820, but a general consensus appears to have arrived at about 250,000 immigrants from 1783 to 1819. I estimated the annual figures for the period by assuming a modest jump after the French Revolution in 1789, a significant jump in 1793–94 following the Haitian Revolution, a significant decline during the Napoleonic Wars, and an almost total elimination during the War of 1812. These assumptions produced period averages similar to those estimated in American Immigration by Maldwyn Allen Jones and which accord with other accounts of the period.
The average number of new legal immigrants per year from 1783 to 2017 was 370,169, and the average immigration rate was 0.4 percent of the population—that’d be the equivalent of 1.3 million people in 2018. For context, the United States is on pace to admit about 1 million new immigrants in 2018 or 0.32 percent of its population.
The estimate for the number of illegal immigrants is much more tentative for obvious reasons. About 11.3 million immigrants without legal status show up in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey in 2016. Broadly reliable estimates of the illegal population exist back to 1980. While relatively few people immigrated illegally prior to the 1980s, I estimated amounts using the available evidence. Based on estimates of the mortality and emigration rates of illegal immigrants in recent years, we can conclude that about 1.4 million immigrants died without status and 6.4 million illegal immigrants voluntarily emigrated. In addition to these, about 2.4 million were deported. It would be reasonable to increase these figures by 10 to 20 percent, but the overall picture of U.S. immigration in Figure 1 would hold.
America’s tradition of receiving people from around the world is admirable, but as Figure 2 shows, the rate of legal immigration right now is still far lower than its historic highs in the 19th and early 20th century. America can not only easily sustain a much higher rate of legal immigration than what it permits at the moment—it would benefit greatly from a much higher rate.