A brief history of immigration to the U.S.

June 10, 2019

Border Wall
Photo credit: Tony Webster

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According to a Gallup poll, survey participants ranked immigration as the number one problem facing the United States. Immigration and, in particular, illegal immigration has become one of the most contested topic in American political discourse. Even before assuming office, Donald Trump has made immigration central to his platform.

Within days of assuming office, Trump signed an executive order banning the entry of nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries, suspended all entry of Syrian refugees, and barred all other refugees for a 120 day period. Three versions of the extremely controversial 'Muslim ban' were signed before the third one was upheld by the Supreme Court.

In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' immigration policy - one that had been secretly enacted nearly one year prior. More than 2,700 children were separated from their parents and detained in government facilities, in some cases while their parents were deported. Although the administration was court-ordered to reunite children with their parents, which was accomplished despite the fact that no systematic efforts were made to track separated children, thousands of children are likely still separated from their families.

Finally, Trump has been calling for a southern border wall since his time on the campaign trail. Despite repeatedly failing to secure Congressional support for his border wall plans (despite a government shutdown, an emergency declaration, a block of the declaration, and a presidential veto), he has nonetheless continued to draw intense criticism for anti-immigrant attacks, inflammatory statements about refugees and asylum-seekers, and white nationalist rhetoric. In March, Trump threatened to close the southern border, before quickly retreating. Most recently, the administration briefly threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican imports in retaliation for the influx of migrants.

As a hot-button issue, there are two very different stories about immigration to the United States. In the Trump camp, there is talk of an 'invasion' of immigrants, of drugs 'flooding' across the southern border, of crime. Others counter that immigration is in fact declining and note that immigration does not increase violent crime. So we decided to look at the data ourselves.

Is immigration to the United States increasing?

A total of 83.9 million people have obtained legal permanent residence in the United States legally since 1820, the first year that the federal government produced data on immigration.

Overall, legal immigration to the United States peaked in two distinct periods: between 1900-1920 and from 1990 to present. The years 1990 and 1991 recorded the largest number of legal immigrants, with 1.83 million people entering the United States in 1990. The year 1907 was the third highest year with 1.3 million people acquiring legal residence. In 2017, the most recent year with data, a total of 1.13 million people acquired legal permanent residence in the U.S.

Number of immigrants to the United States, 1925-2017

Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Persons obtaining legal permanent resident status (Table 1) and aliens apprehended (Table 33).

Of course, the United States was a much different country at the beginning of the 20th century. For one thing, far fewer people lived here. Using population data from the U.S. Census and the National Archives and Records Administration, we find that legal immigration as a proportion of the total U.S. population was at its highest in 1850, when the country's population increased by 1.3% from legal immigration. In 1990, the year with the most recorded legal immigrants, the immigration rate was just 0.62% of the population. In 2017, the most recent year with data, legal immigrants were equivalent to 0.35% of the American population. By this metric, today's immigration is higher than the all-time lows of the 1930s and 1940s, but otherwise comparable to the early 1800s.

What about illegal immigration?

Prior to the 19th century, the United States had nearly open borders. In 1882, riding a swell of anti-immigrant sentiment, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited all Chinese laborers from entering the country and was not repealed until 1943. This act was expanded in 1892 to include restrictions on other groups of immigrants, including people with criminal records, those with mental illnesses, those accused of polygamy, or those "likely to become a public charge." The law also taxed immigrants, thereby providing the government with the funding that enabled it to open immigration processing facilities like that on Ellis Island. Later policies established literacy requirements for immigrants (1917) and established national quotas (1924).

In 1924, the U.S. Border Patrol was established to apprehend Chinese immigrants entering the country illegally. Although the Border Patrol is often discussed in the context of Central American immigration, this came later. Immigration from Mexico and Latin America increased after the establishment of the bracero, or manual laborer, program, which was established during World War II to grant short-term work contracts to guest Mexican farm workers. After the program ended in 1964, circular migration between the two countries continued and unauthorized immigration across the southern border increased.

Since 1925, the federal government has reported statistics on the number of people aprehended while attempting to enter the U.S. without authorization. In contrast with legal immigration data, these numbers are directly tied to the amount of government funding and personnel tasked with reducing undocumented immigration. For instance, in 1954 an enormous spike in apprehended immigrants was reported, with more than a million people arrested. This was directly attributable to a Border Patrol mass deportation program called Operation Wetback, named for a racist slur for Latin American immigrants. The operation used often brutal military tactics to remove Mexican nationals and has been accused of human rights violations.

In recent years, arrests of undocumented immigrants spiked between 1976 and 2006, averaging around 1.3 million apprehensions per year and peaking in 2000. Annual arrests declined to around 462,000 in 2015, before rising in 2016 (the most recent year with data) to 530,000 -- approximately half the number from a decade earlier.

Refugees, asylum-seekers, workers: who gets legal residency?

Around two-thirds of people who receive legal permanent residence in the U.S. do so through family-based immigration visas. The majority of these are through Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas, which allow the spouses, unmarried children under 21, and parents of U.S. citizens to enter the country. In the last fifteen years, spouses have constituted the majority of these visas (57% in 2017), with the reminder roughly split between children and parents.

The other type of family-based visas are the Family Preference Immigrant Visas. About half of these are provided to allow U.S. citizens to sponsor their children and siblings, while the other half allow non-citizen legal permanent residents to sponsor their spouses and unmarried children. Because there are limits on the number of Family Preference visas provided each year, there are waitlists for these (some wait decades in line).

The term 'chain migration' is usually used to refer to these types of visas, in which people people living in the U.S. can sponsor their family members to join them in the country. The total number of famliy-based immigration visas (Immediate Relative and Family Preference) has increased by just under 12% between 2002 and 2017.

Number of people acquiring legal permanent resident status, 2002-2017

Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Table 6: Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status by Type and Major Class of Admission. Smaller categories not shown: parolees, children born abroad to alien residents, Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), cancellation of removal, Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (HRIFA), and other.

The remaining one-third of legal immigrants receive Employment-Based Immigration Visas. The number of these visas granted annually is capped, with the limit set at 140,000 in 2017 (about 12% of all people earning legal permanent residence). As a result, these numbers do not change much year-to-year. However, the breakdown in types of immigrants has changed dramatically: in the last fifteen years, the number of skilled workers, professionals, and unskilled workers has declined by 57%, while the number of priority workers has increased by 20% (priority workers includes three groups: workers of extroardinary ability, oustanding university professors or researchers, and executives or managers of multinational U.S. companies).

Visas for investors, or 'employment creation', have increased an extroardinary 6,856% in fifteen years (going from just 142 per year in 2002 to just under 10,000 in 2017). These visas, sometimes referred to as 'Golden Visas', are acquired by investing $1,000,000 in a U.S. company, or half a million into a high-unemployment or rural area.

More than 120,000 refugees acquired legal permanent residence in 2017, totaling 11% of all new legal residents. The number of refugees given residence permits is also capped, with the cap increased to 110,000 for 2017 by the Obama administration in response to a global refugee crisis stemming from military conflicts in the Middle East. The Trump administration decreased the cap to 45,000 for 2018 and again to 30,000 for 2019. Official data are on refugee admissions have not been made available since these caps were lowered.

Asylum-seekers and diversity visas (a special visa class to admit immigrants from countries that are historically underrepresented in the U.S.) total just 3% of all legal permanent residents. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that the number of asylum-seekers worldwide has nearly tripled since 2002; in that same time period the number of asylum-seekers provided legal residence more than doubled from 10,197 in 2002 to 25,647 in 2017. The number of diversity visas provided has remained largely unchanged in the last fifteen years.

Where are immigrants coming from?

Perhaps the biggest shift in immigration in the past two hundred years is the source of immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security reports data on the country of last residence of all immigrants receiving lawful permanent residence. Using these data, we find that European immigrants made up more than 75% of all people receiving permanent residence from 1820 to 1910 (after excluding immigrants with unknown country of origin). After 1910, European immigrants began to make up a much smaller proportion of lawful immigrants: by 1960 they made up less than half of immigrants, by 1970 they made up less than a quarter, and in 2017 they made up just 8% of all people receiving permanent residence.

By contrast, the proportion of immigrants arriving from the Americas (including Central and South America) has increased from 37% in 1920 to a peak of 53% in 1990, before dropping to 43% in 2017. More striking is the rise of immigration from Asia, with Asia-originating immigrants rising from 5% in 1950 to 36% in 2017. Immigrants from Africa have increased from less than 1% in 1960 to more than 10% in 2017.

Persons obtaining legal permanent resident status, by continent of last residence, 1820-2017

Continent of last residence

Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Table 2: Persons obtaining legal permanent resident status by region and selected country of last residence. Country 'not specified' are excluded and constitute 14.9% and 15.5% in 1820 and 1830, respectively, but less than 5% in all other decades.

Of course, the quality of data in the earliest years of reporting was lower than today's data. For instance, people arriving by land were not accurately counted before 1908, and the definition of an 'immigrant' has changed in these data over time. However, these data are nonetheless useful as a proxy for the changing demographics of immigrants to the U.S.

What about the current immigration crisis?

Immigration to the U.S. has come in several distinct waves. In the two hundred years since legal immigration has been tracked by the federal government, two major peaks of immigration are observed: at the beginning of the 20th century and in the early 1990s. Lawful immigration in 2017 remains high in absolute terms, although when measured as a proportion of the U.S. population, the rate of immigration is equivalent to the early 1800s. The rate of people receiving legal residence through family-based preference has remained largely unchanged in the past two decades, while the proportion of employment-based visas going to high-skilled workers has increased appreciably.

In 2016, around half a million people were arrested trying to enter the country, a number that is half the number arrested a decade earlier. Yet last month, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol commissioner Kevin McAleenan described the immigration system as being "well beyond capacity, and remains at the breaking point." He noted that 76,000 migrants were apprehended at the border, a rate that if sustained the whole year would amount to 912,000 migrants arrested at the border. This number, although considerably higher than the rate in 2016, would still be half the rate in 2000. What is new is that this current wave of migration includes families with young children, seeking legal asylum as they flee countries impacted by violence.

Overall, the number of immigrants to the U.S. today is neither record-breaking nor unprecedented. Unfortunately, neither is the response: the historic wave of migration from China led to the Chinese Exclusion Act; the growth of migrant workers from Mexico in the 1940s led to the mass expulsion of Mexican migrants; and the growth in immigration from Ireland led to the Immigration Act of 1882 that barred entry to low-income people likely to become a 'public charge'. Today, as immigrants are increasingly arriving from Central and Latin America, Asia, and Africa, the U.S. response has been 'zero tolerance' family-separation policies, children in cages, and threats to build walls.

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