The United States is the top desired destination for immigrants around the world. The easy labor market rules make getting job or starting a business much easier than most other countries. The cultural climate is ones of the most accepting, and even if a specific place within U.S. borders doesn’t fit your preferences, the 50 states offer other markets, cultures, and climates that might. Yet despite these facts, a much larger share of immigrants are finding homes outside of America.
From 1990 to 1995, the U.S. foreign‐born population increased by 5.2 million, which accounted for 63 percent of the increase of 8.3 million in immigrants living in all countries in the world combined (Figure 1), according to data from the United Nations. This share has fallen almost continuously since then: 52 percent (1995–2000), 25 percent (2000–2005), 17 percent (2005–2010), 14 percent (2010–2015), and 11 percent (2015–2019). The share was just 6 percent from 2017 to 2019.
Initially, the 1995–2000 decline was driven by larger increases in the immigrant populations of other countries (Figure 2). The U.S. immigrant population grew by almost 6.4 million from 1995 to 2000, but the world immigrant population jumped by 12.2 million, meaning that the U.S. share fell from 63 to 52 percent. But after 9/11, U.S. immigrant population growth declined, while the global immigrant population continued to rise higher.
While this measure—the increase in immigrant residents at a point in time—doesn’t capture the total number of international movers worldwide (because some people move home or die and others move replacing them), it is still clear that the United States is losing its preeminence as the world’s premier receiving country.
In the 1990s, the United States increased the legal immigration limits for family‐ and employment‐based immigration and accepted millions of unauthorized immigrants, increasing the illegal population by 5.1 million. But with tighter border security and more guest worker visas, the illegal population growth slowed after 2005 and now the United States has lost more illegal residents than it has gained since 2010. Meanwhile, the 1990 limits on immigration have become woefully out‐of‐date.
As a result of this and new restrictions on legal immigration by President Trump, the U.S. share of its own population who are foreign‐born remained flat for multiple years for the first time since the Great Recession from 2017 to 2019. 2020 will likely be the same, which would make it the longest stretch with no increase in the foreign share since the 1960s.
At the same time, other countries have allowed more immigration. The United States now ranks in the bottom third for wealthy countries (at least $20,000 in per capita GDP) for the share of its population who are foreign‐born, and of course, the U.S. gets mostly undeserved credit because it has such a large illegal population. Without the illegal residents, the U.S. ranking plummets to just outside the bottom ten of wealthy countries.
The Biden administration has the opportunity to turn these trends around and attract talented and hardworking foreign workers to the United States. With companies moving businesses offshore, and American families being unnecessarily separated by various restrictions on immigration, the Biden administration should use all the powers at its disposal to let more immigrants come to contribute to this country.