Posted on November 23, 2004

Immigrant Population at Record High in 2004

Center for Immigration Studies, Nov. 2004

WASHINGTON (November 2004)—An analysis of data not yet published by the Census Bureau shows that the nation’s immigrant population (legal and illegal) reached a new record of more than 34 million in March of 2004, an increase of over 4 million just since 2000. The fact that immigration has remained so high indicates that immigration does not rise and fall in close step with the economy, as some have imagined. The report, entitled Economy Slowed, But Immigration Didn’t: The Foreign-born Population 2000-2004, is available online at the Center’s Web site:

Among the findings:

  • The 34.24 million immigrants (legal and illegal) now living in the country is the highest number ever recorded in American history and a 4.3-million increase since 2000.
  • Of the 4.3 million growth, almost half, or 2 million, is estimated to be from illegal immigration.
  • In the data collected by the Census Bureau, there were roughly 9 million illegal aliens. Prior research indicates that 10 percent of illegal aliens are missed by the survey, suggesting a total illegal population of about 10 million in March of this year.
  • The same data also show that in the years between 2000 and 2004, nearly 6.1 million new immigrants (legal and illegal) arrived from abroad. Arrivals are offset by deaths and return migration among immigrants already here, so the total increased by 4.3 million.
  • The 6.1 million new immigrants who arrived in the four years since 2000 compares to 5.5 million new arrivals in the four years prior to 2000, during the economic expansion.
  • The pace of immigration is so surprising because unemployment among immigrants increased from 4.4 to 6.1 percent, and the number of unemployed immigrants grew by 43 percent.
  • States with the largest increase in their immigrant population were Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington, Arizona, and Pennsylvania.

“The idea that immigration is a self regulating process that rises and falls in close step with the economy is simply wrong,” said Steven Camarota, the report’s author and the Center’s Director of Research. “Today, the primary sending countries are so much poorer than the United States, even being unemployed in America is still sometimes better than staying in one’s home country.”

Other findings in the report:

  • Unlike current immigration, evidence from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries indicates that economic downturns in the United States did have a very significant impact on immigration levels.
  • As a share of the nation’s total population, immigrants now account for nearly 12 percent, the highest percentage in over 80 years.
  • Recent immigration has had no significant impact on the nation’s age structure. If the 6.1 million immigrants who arrived after 2000 had not come, the average age in America would be virtually unchanged at 36 years.
  • The diversity of the immigrant population continues to decline, with the top country, Mexico, accounting for 31 percent of all immigrants in 2004, up from 28 percent in 2000, 22 percent in 1990, and 16 percent in 1980.

No Major Change in Policy After 9/11. It is important to realize that there has been no major change in the selection criteria used or numerical limits placed on legal immigration, even after September 11th. Moreover, immigration enforcement efforts have actually become more lax in recent years. While visa applicants from some parts of the world may have to wait a little longer for approval and a tiny number of illegal aliens from selected countries may have been detained, this does not constitute a major change in policy and has no meaningful impact on the number of people settling in the United States.

Disconnect from Economy. The primary sending countries today are much poorer relative to the United States than were the primary sending countries in the past. The much higher standard of living in the United States exists even during recessions. Moreover, people come to America for many reasons, including to join family, to avoid social or legal obligations, to take advantage of America’s social services, and to enjoy greater personal and political freedom. Thus even a prolonged economic downturn is unlikely to have a large impact on immigration levels. If we want lower immigration levels it would require enforcement of immigration laws and changes to the legal immigration system.

Data Source. The information for the report comes from the March Current Population Surveys (CPS) collected by the Census Bureau, also called the Annual Social and Economic Supplement. The March data include an extra-large sample of minorities and is considered one of the best sources of information on immigrants, referred to as the foreign- born by the Census Bureau. The foreign-born are defined as persons living here who were not U.S. citizens at birth. Because all children born in the United States to foreign born are by definition natives, the sole reason for the dramatic increase in the foreign-born population is new immigration.