Posted on February 9, 2022

Amid Slowdown, Immigration Is Driving U.S. Population Growth

Miriam Jordan and Robert Gebeloff, New York Times, February 5, 2022

Overall, 2021 will go down as the year with the slowest population growth in U.S. history.

New census data shows why: Both components of growth — gains from immigration, and the number of births in excess of the number of deaths — have fallen sharply in recent years. In 2021, the rate of population growth fell to an unprecedented 0.1 percent.

Yet within these sluggish figures a new pattern is emerging. Immigration, even at reduced levels, is for the first time making up a majority of population growth.

In part this is because Americans are dying at higher rates and having fewer babies, trends accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s also because there are signs that immigration is picking up again.

Even after four years of stringent controls on immigration imposed under former President Donald J. Trump, the overall share of Americans born in other countries is not only rising, but coming close to levels last seen in the late 19th century.

The numbers are not nearly what they once were. The latest report, from the Census Bureau’s population estimates program, showed a net gain of 244,000 new residents from immigration in 2021 — a far cry from the middle of the previous decade, when the bureau regularly attributed annual gains of one million or more to immigration.

Yet that drop-off pales in comparison to the slowdown in what demographers call “natural increase,” the excess of births over deaths. In 2021, that figure was 148,000, or one-tenth the gain that was normal a decade ago, and smaller than international migration for the first time ever.

As of December, immigrants represented 14.1 percent of the U.S. population, matching the peak of the decades-long immigration boom that began in the 1960s and approaching the record 14.8 percent seen in 1890, shortly before large numbers of Europeans began disembarking from vessels at Ellis Island.

The foreign-born population is increasingly concentrated among middle-age groups, with a large number of immigrants having lived in the United States for many years. About 1 in 5 Americans between the ages of 40 and 64 was born overseas. And two-thirds of foreign-born residents have been in the country more than a decade, the census data shows.

In that respect, the country’s demographics reflect the long-term effects of the huge levels of immigration it experienced during the 1970s and 1980s.


The recent slowdown in immigration was an apparent result not only of the tougher immigration policies, but also measures taken in response to the Covid-19 health crisis. In the early months of 2020, the government sealed the borders with Mexico and Canada and limited international entries by air. The closure of U.S. consular offices around the globe derailed visa processing.

But the data suggests that tougher restrictions on the border may not have been the biggest factor in the slowdown. Many immigrants decided to leave the country. During the first years of Mr. Trump’s administration, the number of immigrants coming into the country held steady, while the number leaving increased, figures show.

Some data suggests that the pace of immigration has picked up lately. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported a surge in enforcement activity last year, and the Census Bureau’s monthly employment survey also detected an uptick in foreign-born respondents in late 2021.


If immigration returns to even its relatively modest prepandemic pace, it is possible the share of Americans born overseas could reach the record 14.8 percent from 1890.


Some of the growth in the foreign-born population is related to a surge of migrants at the southwestern border that has been going on, to varying degrees, since 2014. But it is almost impossible to know the full extent. Not only is there no reliable accounting of how many people are entering the country illegally, it is not clear how many of them are being quickly expelled.


Lower immigration from Mexico, traditionally the biggest source of new immigrants, has contributed to falling U.S. birthrates overall.