Senators Propose Great Depression Era Legal Immigration Rates—Claim It’s the “Historical Norm”

Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) are promoting their legislation titled “the RAISE Act” at the White House today. It would reduce immigration by 50 percent over 10 years by eliminating several categories of legal immigration. The legislation would reduce the per capita rate of immigration to the lowest amount since just after the Great Depression. Immigration would fall to a rate three times less than the historical average and 11 times less than the historical high.

Yet the senators claim that the RAISE Act would “restor[e] legal immigration levels to their historical norms.” This statement is so misleading that it borders on outright deception. The “level” is just the absolute number of immigrants each year. But this treats the number of immigrants in 1900 the same as the number of immigrants in 2017, despite the fact that the U.S. population quadrupled during that time. You have to control for the size of the country. It’s like saying a million immigrants to China is the same as a million immigrants to Estonia—despite the fact that China is 1,000 times more populous.

The figure below provides the true picture of the amount of immigration to the United States: the number of new legal permanent residents divided by the number of people in the United States (the per capita immigration rate). From 1820 to 2017, the immigration rate averaged 0.45 percent of the population annually. In 2017, that rate was 0.32 percent. In other words: 28 percent below the average historical rate. If the United States were to adopt the “historical norm,” it would need to raise immigration quotas by about the amount that RAISE lowers them: 411,000. By contrast, under the senators’ proposal, immigration would fall to 0.14 percent—more than three times less than the “historical norm.”

The figure below graphs the annual legal immigration rate from 1820—the first year that the U.S. recorded immigrant arrivals—to 2017. It assumes that the RAISE Act will actually be implemented in 2018 and uses the Census population projections to forecast the impact of the legislation through 2030. As it shows, the rate of immigration would dramatically drop in the first year and continue to fall until it reached a level not seen since just after World War II and far below the tradition of immigration prior to the progressive movement in the 1920s.

U.S. Per Capita Immigration Rates and Projected Rates Under the RAISE Act, 1820-2030

Sources: 1820–2017: Department of Homeland Security; 2018–2030: Tom Cotton and Census Bureau (Census population figures reduced by immigrants denied under RAISE Act minus the number who would’ve emigrated from the U.S. after initial entry in any case, using Borjas; the rate of decline in immigration for 2028–2030 based on Cotton’s projections for 2018–2027)

Below is a table of the immigration rates for every year from 1820 to 2030. If the RAISE Act becomes law, 2030 would have the lowest rate of immigration since 1954, and of the 30 years out of 211 with lower rates, 18 of them occurred during the Great Depression or World Wars, and seven were in the 1820s before steam power transformed the Atlantic crossing. Are these periods what the senators consider normal?

Immigration Rates Ranked Lowest to Highest

Rank Immigration Rate Year

1

0.02%

1943

2

0.02%

1933

3

0.02%

1944

4

0.02%

1942

5

0.02%

1934

6

0.03%

1945

7

0.03%

1935

8

0.03%

1936

9

0.03%

1932

10

0.04%

1941

11

0.04%

1937

12

0.05%

1938

13

0.05%

1940

14

0.06%

1823

15

0.06%

1939

16

0.07%

1822

17

0.07%

1824

18

0.08%

1946

19

0.08%

1931

20

0.09%

1820

21

0.09%

1825

22

0.09%

1821

23

0.09%

1826

24

0.10%

1947

25

0.11%

1953

26

0.11%

1918

27

0.12%

1948

28

0.13%

1949

29

0.13%

1954

30

0.13%

1951

31

0.14%

1919

32

0.14%

2030

33

0.14%

1955

34

0.14%

1958

35

0.15%

2029

36

0.15%

1959

37

0.15%

1960

38

0.15%

1961

39

0.15%

2028

40

0.15%

1962

41

0.15%

1964

42

0.15%

1965

43

0.15%

2027

44

0.16%

1827

45

0.16%

2026

46

0.16%

1963

47

0.16%

2025

48

0.16%

1950

49

0.16%

1966

50

0.17%

2024

51

0.17%

1952

52

0.17%

1831

53

0.17%

2023

54

0.18%

1979

55

0.18%

2022

56

0.18%

1969

57

0.18%

1971

58

0.18%

1975

59

0.18%

1829

60

0.18%

2021

61

0.18%

1830

62

0.18%

1970

63

0.18%

1967

64

0.18%

1972

65

0.18%

1974

66

0.18%

2020

67

0.19%

1973

68

0.19%

2019

69

0.19%

1957

70

0.19%

1956

71

0.19%

2018

72

0.20%

1930

73

0.21%

1977

74

0.22%

1828

75

0.23%

1968

76

0.23%

1976

77

0.23%

1929

78

0.23%

1984

79

0.23%

1982

80

0.23%

1980

81

0.24%

1983

82

0.24%

1999

83

0.24%

1985

84

0.24%

1838

85

0.24%

1998

86

0.24%

2003

87

0.25%

1987

88

0.25%

1986

89

0.25%

1925

90

0.25%

1928

91

0.26%

1981

92

0.26%

1926

93

0.26%

1988

94

0.26%

1978

95

0.27%

1995

96

0.28%

1843

97

0.28%

1862

98

0.28%

1922

99

0.28%

1927

100

0.28%

1861

101

0.29%

1917

102

0.29%

1878

103

0.29%

1916

104

0.30%

1997

105

0.30%

2000

106

0.30%

1877

107

0.30%

1835

108

0.31%

1994

109

0.31%

1898

110

0.32%

2013

111

0.32%

1897

112

0.32%

2017

113

0.32%

2014

114

0.32%

2016

115

0.32%

1915

116

0.33%

2015

117

0.33%

2004

118

0.33%

2012

119

0.34%

2010

120

0.34%

2011

121

0.35%

1996

122

0.35%

1993

123

0.35%

2007

124

0.36%

1879

125

0.36%

1868

126

0.37%

2008

127

0.37%

1876

128

0.37%

2002

129

0.37%

2009

130

0.37%

1895

131

0.38%

2001

132

0.38%

1992

133

0.38%

2005

134

0.40%

1859

135

0.40%

1844

136

0.40%

1920

137

0.41%

1839

138

0.41%

1858

139

0.41%

1833

140

0.42%

1899

141

0.42%

1894

142

0.43%

2006

143

0.44%

1832

144

0.44%

1989

145

0.45%

1834

146

0.45%

1841

147

0.47%

1923

148

0.48%

1896

149

0.49%

1860

150

0.49%

1840

151

0.49%

1836

152

0.50%

1837

153

0.51%

1875

154

0.52%

1863

155

0.55%

1864

156

0.57%

1845

157

0.57%

1842

158

0.58%

1886

159

0.59%

1900

160

0.62%

1990

161

0.62%

1924

162

0.63%

1901

163

0.66%

1893

164

0.69%

1865

165

0.70%

1885

166

0.71%

1874

167

0.72%

1889

168

0.72%

1890

169

0.72%

1991

170

0.73%

1856

171

0.74%

1921

172

0.74%

1846

173

0.76%

1855

174

0.79%

1871

175

0.82%

1902

176

0.83%

1887

177

0.83%

1909

178

0.84%

1867

179

0.87%

1866

180

0.87%

1891

181

0.88%

1912

182

0.88%

1908

183

0.88%

1892

184

0.89%

1857

185

0.90%

1869

186

0.91%

1888

187

0.91%

1880

188

0.94%

1911

189

0.94%

1884

190

0.97%

1872

191

0.97%

1870

192

0.99%

1904

193

1.03%

1848

194

1.06%

1903

195

1.07%

1873

196

1.10%

1847

197

1.12%

1883

198

1.13%

1910

199

1.22%

1905

200

1.23%

1914

201

1.23%

1913

202

1.29%

1906

203

1.30%

1881

204

1.31%

1849

205

1.43%

1853

206

1.48%

1907

207

1.49%

1852

208

1.50%

1882

209

1.58%

1851

210

1.59%

1850

211

1.61%

1854

Average

0.43%