The biggest recent immigration news is that Asia surpassed Latin America as the main source of immigration to the U.S. While the recent Supreme Court case about SB1070 or Obama’s de facto DREAM Act memo are important, the changing demography of immigration will have wider ranging long term impact.
This type of change has happened before. By the end of the 1960s, Latin America displaced Europe as the main source of immigrants. The increase in permanent Hispanic immigration to the United States back then was due to multiple factors, which some of which are now repeating for Asian immigrants.
First, legal changes in the Immigration Act of 1965 removed the old national origin quotas and allowed in more non-Europeans, including Latin Americans and Asians. The growing number of legal Mexican immigrants began to sponsor their relatives. Mexican immigration in the 1950s was about 300,000 that decade, roughly five times greater than during the 1940s. It increased again to 441,824 in the 1960s. Much of that was driven by family migration.
Second, the bracero program, a temporary annual guest worker permit for low skilled Mexican farm workers, was discontinued on the eve of the Immigration Act of 1965 due to labor union pressure. Mexican farm laborers then had three choices: stay in Mexico, immigrate permanently through family reunification, or immigrate without authorization. Many chose the last option because of the cheapness of immigrating to the U.S.
Third, high Mexican birth rates and poor economic growth, especially in the late 1970s and 1980s, began to push large numbers of migrants north into the U.S. labor markets. The relatively free and competitive U.S. economy was growing tremendously in the 1960s and 1980s, increasing demand for labor from all sources including from America’s maturing baby boom, millions of women entering the workplace for the first time, and immigration.
European immigration slowed during the 1960s as Europe’s economy recovered from World War II and the demographic effect of smaller families began to shrink the age cohort of potential emigrants. Restrictionist immigration laws passed in the 1920s made the U.S. miss the last four decades of mass European emigration.
The peak decade for Hispanic immigration was the 1990s with just shy of 4 million legal immigrants. From 2000 to 2010, just over 3 million Hispanic immigrants came to the U.S. with green cards. The 2000s was the first time since the Great Depression when Hispanic immigration dropped relative the last decade.
Hispanic immigration slowed for three major reasons. First, the economic slowdown in the U.S. hurt the industries where Hispanic immigrants traditionally worked like construction. Second, economic expansion south of the border has kept many Mexicans and Central Americans home instead of hazarding the trip north. Third, the Mexican baby-boom ended.
A growing American economy and rebounding housing sector could increase Hispanic immigration again but it is unlikely to ever reach its previous high under present immigration restrictions.
Asian immigration is pushed by some factors that are different from those that encouraged Hispanic immigration. Fast growing economies in Asia have lifted hundreds of millions of people from abysmal poverty to more comfortable poverty and many even to prosperity. Their increased income has made emigration an affordable prospect for millions.
India and China have seen high growth rates in the recent past so it makes sense why each of them has sent over 650,000 immigrants in the last decade. Likewise, the Philippines sent just over 600,000 in the same time period while Vietnam sent only about 320,000.
In contrast to previous waves of immigration, Asian-Americans are more skilled, better educated, and earn higher incomes, often surpassing native born Americans. The median Asian-American household earned about $66,000 in 2010 compared to a median U.S. income of $49,800. Indian Americans have the highest household incomes at $88,000 and Koreans have the lowest at $50,000.
Almost half of all Asian American adults have a college degree, compared to just 28 percent of all Americans. Reflecting their skill and education, 27 percent of Asian immigrants from major source countries get employment based green cards (for highly skilled immigrants) compared to just 8 percent of all other immigrants.
74 percent of all U.S. Asian adults are immigrants because they are a relatively new immigrant group. Chinese and Japanese immigration waves began in the 19th century but the shameful Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan in 1907, and the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917 kept their numbers low. Only in recent decades have the numbers recovered.
So far, only about 10 percent of the total unauthorized immigrant population is Asian. Their distance from the U.S. and the cost of smuggling — as high as $75,000 per person from China — keeps the numbers fairly small for now. But if the benefits to immigrating without authorization continue to mount and cheaper ways of entering the U.S. are discovered, mass unauthorized immigration of lower skilled Asian immigrants could become a reality if the U.S. does not increase legal immigration or at least create a large guest worker program.
Asian immigration to the U.S. is different from past immigrations — both because of their origin and characteristics. In a more interconnected world and with the price of travel falling relative to incomes, more immigrants are going to be able to come whether our government gives them permission or not. Asian immigration has been a boon to the U.S. To reap even more rewards the legal barriers to peaceful immigration should be lowered.