Immigrants at Mid-Decade

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Immigrants at Mid-Decade
A Snapshot of America's Foreign-Born Population in 2005

December 2005

By Steven A. Camarota

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An analysis of Census Bureau data shows that the nation's foreign-born or immigrant population (legal and illegal) reached a new record of more than 35 million in March of 2005. The data also indicate that the first half of this decade has been the highest five-year period of immigration in American history. This Backgrounder provides a detailed picture of both numbers and the socio-economic status of immigrants.

Among the report's findings:

  • The 35.2 million immigrants (legal and illegal) living in the country in March 2005 is the highest number ever recorded -- two and a half times the 13.5 million during the peak of the last great immigration wave in 1910.

  • Between January 2000 and March 2005, 7.9 million new immigrants (legal and illegal) settled in the country, making it the highest five-year period of immigration in American history.

  • Nearly half of post-2000 arrivals (3.7 million) are estimated to be illegal aliens.

  • Immigrants account for 12.1 percent of the total population, the highest percentage in eight decades. If current trends continue, within a decade it will surpass the high of 14.7 percent reached in 1910.

  • Of adult immigrants, 31 percent have not completed high school, three-and-a-half times the rate for natives. Since 1990, immigration has increased the number of such workers by 25 percent, while increasing the supply of all other workers by 6 percent.

  • Immigrants were once significantly more likely to have a college degree, but the new data show that natives are now as likely as immigrants to have a bachelor's or graduate degree.

  • The proportion of immigrant-headed households using at least one major welfare program is 29 percent, compared to 18 percent for native households.

  • The poverty rate for immigrants and their U.S.-born children (under 18) is 18.4 percent, 57 percent higher than the 11.7 percent for natives and their children. Immigrants and their minor children account for almost one in four persons living in poverty.

  • One-third of immigrants lack health insurance -- two-and-one half times the rate for natives. Immigrants and their U.S. born children account for almost three-fourths (nine million) of the increase in the uninsured population since 1989.

  • The low educational attainment of many immigrants and resulting low wages are the primary reasons so many live in poverty, use welfare programs, or lack health insurance, not their legal status or an unwillingness to work.

  • A central question for immigration policy is: Should we allow in so many people with little education, which increases job competition for the poorest American workers and the size of the population needing government assistance?

  • Immigrants make significant economic progress the longer they live in the United States, but even immigrants who have lived in the United States for 14 or 15 years still have dramatically higher rates of poverty, lack of health insurance, and welfare use than natives.

  • States with the largest increase in immigrants are California, Texas Georgia, New Jersey, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Washington, Virginia, Arizona, Tennessee, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Mississippi.

  • Immigration accounts for virtually all of the national increase in public school enrollment over the last two decades. In 2005, there were 10.3 million school age children from immigrant families in the United States.

  • Immigrants and natives exhibit remarkably similar rates of entrepreneurship, with 13 percent of natives and 11 percent of immigrants self employed.

  • Recent immigration has had no significant impact on the nation's age structure. Without the 7.9 million post-2000 immigrants, the average age in America would be virtually unchanged at 36 years.

Data Source and Methods
Data Source.
The information for this Backgrounder comes primarily from the March 2005 Current Population Survey (CPS) collected by the Census Bureau, which is also called the Annual Social and Economic Supplement. The March data used in this study include an extra large sample of minorities and are considered one of the best sources of information on the foreign born.1 The foreign-born are defined as persons living in the United States who were not U.S. citizens at birth.2 In this report the terms foreign born and immigrant are used synonymously. Because all children born in the United States to immigrants are by definition natives, the sole reason for the dramatic increase in the foreign- born population is new immigration. The immigrant population in the 2005 CPS includes between nine and 10 million illegal aliens and between one and two million persons on long term temporary visas, mainly students and guest workers. The CPS does not include persons in "group quarters," such as prisons and nursing homes. The survey is one of the most extensive conducted by the government and includes a host of questions on everything from poverty and income to welfare use, health insurance coverage, and educational attainment. We rely on responses to these questions to examine the demographic characteristics of the nation's immigrant population.

Recent Trends in Immigration
Figure 1 reports the number of immigrants living in the United States based on the CPS collected in March of each year from 1995 through 2005. The figure shows that between March 1995 and March 2000, the foreign-born population grew by 5.7 million, or about 1.1 million per year.3 The figure also shows that between 2000 and 2005 the immigrant population grew 5.2 million, or 1.04 million per year. These two numbers are the same statistically. Thus, it would appear that the growth in the foreign-born population during the economic expansion in the second half of the 1990s was the same as during the recession and recovery -- 2000 to 2005.4

Deaths and Out-Migration. When growth in the foreign-born population is discussed, it must be remembered that the increase over time represents a net figure and does not reflect the level of new immigration. New arrivals are offset by deaths and out-migration. Given the age, sex, and other demographic characteristics of the immigrant population, it is likely that there are about 7,500 deaths per million immigrants each year. This number does not change much from year to year, but it does increase gradually over time as the immigrant population grows. As a result, there were about 80,000 more deaths per year among immigrants in 2005 than in 1995 because the overall population grew by almost 11 million. This means that a slower net increase in the immigrant population may not indicate a falling level of new immigration.

There is more debate about the size of return migration. But the Census Bureau has estimated that about 280,000 immigrants living here return home each year.5 In total, deaths and return migration equal 500,000 or 550,000 a year. It should also be remembered that like any survey, there exists sampling variability in the CPS. The margin of error, using a 90-percent confidence interval, for the foreign-born is between 640,000 and 700,000 for data from 1995 to 2001 and between 520,000 and 540,00 for 2002-2005 data. (The survey was redesigned for 2002, so the size of the statistical error changed.) Thus one could say that in 2005 the immigrant population was 35.16 million plus or minus 538,000. Because of sampling error, even seemingly large year-to-year changes may not be meaningful. When looking for trends it is much better to compare differences over several years.

Flow of New Immigrants. Another way to examine trends in immigration is to look at responses to the year-of-arrival question. The CPS asks individuals when they came to America to stay. The 2005 CPS indicates that 7.9 million immigrants (legal and illegal) settled in the United States between January 2000 and March 2005, which means that on average more than 1.5 million immigrants arrived annually in the United States. The 2000 CPS shows that 6.64 million immigrants (legal and illegal) settled in the country between 1995 and 2000.6 The difference between these numbers is statistically significant, indicating that more immigrants have arrived in the United States in the five years since 2000 than in the five years prior to 2000. The period 2000-2005 appears to be the highest five-year period of immigration in American history.

A Peak After 2000? It is reasonable to wonder how the flow of immigrants has been affected by the downturn in the economy and September 11. A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that immigration rose significantly at the end of the 1990s, peaking in 2000, and falling off thereafter.7 The study is based mainly on CPS data, and another survey called the American Community Survey (ACS), and the 2000 Census for the 1990s. In evaluating the Pew study it is very important to understand that the numbers in the study "are meant to show trends, not levels of immigration."8 In brief, we too find some evidence in each of these data sources that immigration may have been higher from 1999 to 2001 and lower before and after. But the Census Bureau, which collects the data, applies the same population controls to them, so by design the data are supposed to produce similar results.9 Given the limitations in the data itself, it is very difficult to measure changes in year-to-year immigrant flows. For one thing, the CPS itself was redesigned after 2001, making year-to-year comparisons before and after this date more difficult. As for the ACS, it is not fully implemented, covers less than half the nation's counties, and it too has undergone changes over the last five years. Moreover, in both surveys, the number of just-arrived immigrants comprises less than 1 percent of the sample in many cases. Thus the results can vary quite a bit from year to year.

One of the biggest issues when trying to measure year-to-year changes using the CPS is that the Census Bureau groups respondents by multiple years of entry, making it impossible to know the number of new arrivals for individual years. This is done to preserve the anonymity of respondents. (It is, however, possible to examine the number who entered in the last five years collectively because those years correspond to the grouping of data.) The number of new arrivals in some of these multiple-year groupings are not statistically different from each other, implying that there was no change in immigrant flows 2000 to 2005. In an effort to overcome this grouping of years, Pew tries to use another question in the CPS, which asks immigrants where they lived last year. But a very large share of respondents, in some cases nearly one-third, give an answer to this question that is inconsistent with their answer to the year-of-arrival question.10

Another issue is that for some years growth in the foreign-born population does not match what we would expect if immigration fluctuated in the way the Pew study indicates.11 There are other issues with the data as well.12 What's more, if there was a rise and fall, it is not at all clear that the change had anything to do with the economy, as the Pew study suggests.13 None of this means that there was not a rise in immigration in the late 1990s and a fall off after 2001. However, the limitations of the data make it very hard to say how the flow of immigrants changed year to year.

From a policy perspective, what is far more important than a possible temporary fluctuation in the flow of new immigrants is that immigration remained very high even during the economic downturn. What's more, if there was a slowdown, the 2005 data indicate that immigration has resumed its record pace.14 And the 7.9 million immigrants who arrived between 2000 to 2005 make it the highest five-year period of immigration in American history.

Illegal Immigrants
Illegals in the CPS.
It is well established that illegal aliens do respond to government surveys such as the decennial census and the Current Population Survey. While the CPS does not ask the foreign-born if they are legal residents of the United States, the Urban Institute, the former INS, the Pew Hispanic Center, and the Census Bureau have all used socio-demographic characteristics in the data to estimate the size of the illegal population.15 Our preliminary estimates for the March 2005 CPS indicate that there were between 9.6 and 9.8 million illegal aliens in the survey. It must be remembered that this estimate only includes illegal aliens captured by the March CPS, not those missed by the survey. By design this estimate is consistent with those prepared by the Census Bureau, Immigration and Nationalization Service (INS), Urban Institute, and Pew Hispanic Center.16 While consistent with other research findings, it should be obvious that there is no definitive means of determining whether a respondent in the survey is an illegal alien with 100 percent certainty. We estimate that in 2000, based on the March 2000 CPS, that there were between seven and 7.2 million illegal aliens in the survey. This means about 2.5 to 2.7 million, or about half of the 5.2 million growth in the foreign born between 2000 and 2005 was due to growth in the illegal population. We also estimate that 3.6 to 3.8 million or almost half of the 7.9 million new arrivals are illegal immigrants.

Why Illegals Account for Such a Large Share of Growth. The fact that illegals account for about half of the overall growth in the immigrant population may seem surprising to some, especially since illegal aliens account for only a little over one-fourth of the total foreign-born population. There are several reasons for this. First, prior to the mid-1970s, there was little illegal immigration to the United States, thus older immigrants who entered at that time and are still here are almost all legal residents. Moreover, the United States has conducted both broad amnesties for illegal aliens in the past and each year also grants tens of thousands of illegal aliens legal status as part of the normal "legal" immigration process. For example, 2.7 million illegals were give green cards in the late 1980s and early 1990s as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Moreover, the immigration service estimated that, during just the 1990s, 1.5 million illegal aliens received green cards, not including IRCA.17 Because there is this constant movement out of illegal status to legal status, the size of the existing legal population is much bigger than the existing illegal population. Finally, it must be remembered that although the number of illegal aliens entering and remaining in the country is now enormous, the level of legal immigration is also very high, creating a very large legal immigrant population.

Historical Comparison
Immigration 1900 to 2005. While immigration has played an important role in American history, the level of immigration and the size of the immigrant population has varied considerably. Figure 2 shows the number of immigrants living in the United States over the course of the last 100 years and their share of the total population. The 35.2 million immigrants residing in the United States at the beginning of 2005 is by far the most ever recorded. Even during the great wave of immigration at the turn of the century, the immigrant population was very roughly a third what it is today.

Figure 2 shows that after growing in the early part of this century, the immigrant population stabilized at around 10 or 11 million for about four decades. In the mid 1960s, changes in immigration law and other factors caused the annual level of legal immigration to rise steadily, from about 300,000 in the 1960s to roughly one million today. Illegal immigration has grown dramatically during this time period as well. Since 1970 the immigrant population has more than tripled. As already discussed, the number of immigrants has grown by more than five million just since 2000. The pace of growth is also very high by historic standards, averaging one million per year over the last 10 years. Growth in the 10 years between 1900 and 1910 was 3.2 million, much less than the 5.2 million in just the five years between 2000 and 2005.18

One of the interesting features of current immigration is that such a large share of immigrants stay permanently. Because so many immigrants in the early 20th century eventually returned to their home countries, the immigrant population did not grow as fast in the past as it does today.19

Immigrants as a Share of the Population. While the number of immigrants and the growth rate of the immigrant population are now much higher than in the past, Figure 2 shows that the foreign-born percentage of the population was higher in the first few decades of the 1900s, reaching 14.7 percent of the total U.S. population in 1910. As a result of World War I and changes in immigration law in the early 1920s, the level of immigration fell significantly. The current 12.1 percent of the population that is foreign-born is higher than at any time since the 1920 Census.

In terms of the impact of immigrants on the United States, both the percentage of the population made up of immigrants and the number of immigrants are clearly important. The ability to assimilate and incorporate immigrants is partly dependent on the relative sizes of the native and immigrant populations. On the other hand, absolute numbers also clearly matter -- a large number of immigrants can create the critical mass necessary to create ethnically-based media outlets and religious and civic institutions fostering linguistic, cultural, and spatial isolation. Whether the immigrants in question represent 10 percent or 30 percent of a city or state's population may not be so important; it's the raw numbers that would seem to matter most, and the numbers are approaching three times what they were in 1910. Moreover, absent a change in policy, the number of immigrants will continue to grow rapidly for the foreseeable future. If current trends continue, within about a decade the share of the population that is foreign-born will surpass the high of 14.7 percent reached in 1910.

State Numbers
Number of Immigrants by State.
Table 1 ranks the states by the size of their immigrant populations. It also shows the number of immigrants who reported arriving in 2000 or later. California clearly has the largest immigrant population; New York, the state with next largest number of immigrants, has fewer than half as many. Table 2 also shows how concentrated the immigrant population is: Only a few states represent the majority of the foreign born population. The nearly 10 million immigrants in California account for 28 percent of the nation's total immigrant population, followed by New York with 11 percent, Texas with 10 percent, Florida with 9 percent, and New Jersey with 5 percent. These five states account for 63 percent of the nation's total foreign-born population, but only 35 percent of the native-born population.

(Click here on on table to see a larger version.)

The table also shows evidence that the immigrant population is becoming more dispersed. Table 1 indicates that although the top-five states account for 63 percent of the total immigrant population, only 56 percent of post-2000 arrivals went to these states.

Share of State That Is Immigrant. Table 1 also shows the share of each state's population that is foreign-born. While many states with a large number of immigrants are also states where the percentage is high, there are some differences. Because of their relatively small total populations several states with high percentages of immigrants, such as Hawaii and Nevada, rank lower in terms of number of immigrants. It is very likely that the impact of immigration will be quite significant in these states even though the size of the immigrant population is much smaller than in a state like California.

Growth in the Immigrant Population by State. Table 2 compares the number of immigrants in 1995, 2000, and 2005 for each state.20 It also shows the share of the population that was foreign-born in each of these years. As already discussed, immigrants tend to be concentrated. However, Table 2 also shows that this has become less the case over time. In 1995, the top five states accounted for 69 percent of the total foreign -born population; in 2000 these same states accounted for 66 percent of the foreign born and dropped to 63 percent by 2005. Or looked at in a different way, these five states accounted for 69 percent of the total immigrant population in 1995, but only half the growth in the immigrant population between 1995 and 2005 occurred in these five states.

(Click here on on table to see a larger version.)

Table 2 also shows different patterns for different states. For example, in New York the number of immigrants increased 585,000 between 1995 and 2000, but grew by only 57,000 in the five years after 2000. New Jersey, which is right next to New York, is quite different. The he foreign-born population grew twice as fast between 2000 and 2005 as in the five years before 2000. The same holds for Texas. Perhaps the most dramatic increases can be found in Georgia and North Carolina, where the immigrant population increased threefold between 1995 and 2005. The key point to take from Table 2 is that there is no one pattern that reflects the entire country. The pace and scale varies by state and by time period as well. Table 3 shows the states where the growth was statistically significant between 2000 and 2005.

Region and Country of Origin
Sending Regions.
Table 4 shows the distribution of immigrants by region of the world, with Mexico and Canada treated separately. Mexico accounts for 31 percent of all immigrants, with 10.8 million immigrants living in United States, more than the number of immigrants from any other region of the world. Immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean account for the majority of immigrants, with 54 percent of the foreign born coming from these areas. East Asia also makes up a significant share of the total, accounting for 18 percent of immigrants. This is about the same as the combined total for Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East. The importance of the Western Hemisphere, excluding Canada, is even more striking when we look at recent arrivals. Of those who arrived 2000 to 2005, 58 percent are from Latin America.

Top Sending Counties. Table 5 ranks the top 25 immigrant sending countries by the number of immigrants as of March 2005. Mexico is, of course, the largest sending country, accounting for almost six times as many immigrants as the combined total for China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. As is clear from Table 4, Latin America and the Caribbean countries dominate the list of immigrant sending countries, accounting for almost half of the top 25 countries. One of the striking things about contemporary immigration is that there has been a significant decline in the diversity of immigrants; Mexico accounted for 31 percent of all immigrants in 2005, up from 28 percent in 2000, 22 percent in 1990, and 16 percent in 1980. The top sending country in 1970 was Italy, which accounted for only 10 percent of the foreign-born.

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