More than three decades of rapid growth in the country’s foreign-born population came to a halt last year, census data show, as surging unemployment made the U.S. economy less attractive to outsiders.
In California, which has a long history of attracting immigrants, the number of foreign-born residents actually declined, shrinking 1.6%.
“This is clearly a consequence of the economy, with the biggest impact on Mexican and low-skilled immigrants,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who analyzed the census figures, which are to be officially released today. “It shows that these immigrants respond to the economy.”
Nationwide, the number of foreign-born residents fell an estimated 99,000, or 0.3%, to 37.97 million.
The data come from the Census Bureau’s annual survey of about 3 million Americans, not the entire population. The survey’s margin of sampling error is high enough to make it possible that the number of foreign-born people in the country actually remained unchanged from 2007 to 2008 rather than declined.
Nonetheless, the figures suggest a dramatic break from a long wave of increasing migration to the U.S., particularly from Asia and Latin America, that followed a major change in immigration policy in 1965.
In the two decades that preceded 2008, the country’s foreign-born population grew an average of almost 1 million a year, including by nearly 512,000 in 2007.
In California, the number of foreign-born people dropped 165,000 last year to 9.9 million. The reversal in the state was driven by several Southern California counties with sharp declines, such as Los Angeles, with a slide of 3%, San Bernardino, down 3.6%, and Ventura, down 4.1%. Orange and Riverside counties showed smaller decreases.
But the slowing of the increase in California’s foreign-born population began well before the latest recession, said Dowell Myers, a professor and urban demographer at USC.
The new census data, which come from the bureau’s American Community Survey, an annual poll begun this decade, show the biggest drops last year in foreign-born residents were in California, Arizona and Florida–three of the states hit hardest by the recession. Texas, whose economy has outperformed most other states, saw the biggest gain, followed by Georgia and New York.
More skilled immigrants are giving up their American dreams to pursue careers back home, raising concerns that the U.S. may lose its competitive edge in science, technology and other fields.
“What was a trickle has become a flood,” says Duke University’s Vivek Wadhwa, who studies reverse immigration.
Wadhwa projects that in the next five years, 100,000 immigrants will go back to India and 100,000 to China, countries that have had rapid economic growth.
Suren Dutia, CEO of TiE Global, a worldwide network of professionals who promote entrepreneurship, says the U.S. economy will suffer without these skilled workers. “If the country is going to maintain the kind of economic well-being that we’ve enjoyed for many years, that requires having these incredibly gifted individuals who have been educated and trained by us,” he says.
Wadhwa surveyed 1,203 Indian and Chinese immigrants who had worked or been educated here before returning to their homelands and found the exodus has less to do with the faltering U.S. economy than with other factors:
•Career opportunities. At NIIT, an information technology company based in New Delhi, about 10% of managers in India are returnees, mostly from the U.S., says CEO Vijay Thadani.
•Quality of life and family ties. People return to India to reconnect with their families and culture, Dutia says. “They have a support system there, family and friends.”
•Immigration delays. Multinational companies that belong to the American Council on International Personnel tell Executive Director Lynn Shotwell that skilled immigrants are discouraged by the immigration process, she says. Some can wait up to a decade for permanent residency, she says. “They’re frustrated with having an uncertain immigration status,” she says. “They’re giving up.”