Steven A. Camarota and Karen Zeigler, Center for Immigration Studies, June 1, 2022
An analysis of the Census Bureau’s monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) shows that the total foreign-born population (legal and illegal) in the U.S. hit 47 million in April of 2022 — a record high in American history. The foreign-born population includes all persons who are not U.S. citizens at birth. The size and growth of the foreign-born population in the CPS are important because, unlike arrival figures for legal immigrants or border apprehensions, the CPS measures the total number of legal and illegal immigrants actually living in the country, which is what ultimately determines immigration’s impact on American society.
There is a good deal of variation month-to-month in the data, but the two million increase in the foreign-born population since President Biden took office last January is both large and statistically significant. The dramatic growth is also quite striking because for the foreign-born population to grow at all, new arrivals must exceed both emigration and deaths, as all births to immigrants in the U.S., by definition, add only to the native-born population.
- The 47 million foreign-born residents (legal and illegal) in the country in April of 2022 is the largest number ever recorded in any U.S. government survey or decennial census.
- The total foreign-born population (legal and illegal) increased by two million in the first 16 months of the Biden administration — January 2021 to April 2022 — twice as fast as the U.S.-born population grew.
- We preliminarily estimate that illegal immigrants accounted for two-thirds of the growth in the foreign-born population since January 2021 — 1.35 million.
- Taking a longer view, since 2000, the total foreign-born population has grown by 50 percent; it’s doubled since 1990, tripled since 1980, and quintupled since 1970.
- As a share of the total population, the foreign-born now account for 14.3 percent of the population, or one in seven U.S. residents — the highest percentage in 112 years. As recently as 1990 they were one in 13 U.S. residents.
- If present trends continue, the foreign-born share of the population will reach 14.9 percent of the U.S. population in September 2023, higher than at any time in the nation’s 246-year history.
- On average the foreign-born population has grown by 132,000 a month since President Biden took office, compared to 59,000 per month in Obama’s first term, 76,000 per month in Obama’s second term, and 42,000 per month under Trump before Covid-19 hit.
- While much of the recent increase in the total foreign-born population is due to illegal immigration, those in the country legally still account for three-fourths of all foreign-born residents.
- The states with the largest increase in the total foreign-born population from January 2021 to April 2022 are California (up 527,000), Florida (up 390,000), Pennsylvania (up 375,000), Michigan (up 247,000), Georgia (up 152,000), Arizona (up 148,000), New York (up 145,000), Tennessee (up 130,000), and South Carolina (up 128,000).
Where We’re Headed
Census Bureau Projections. In addition to the size of the foreign-born population and its share of the total U.S. population through April of this year, Figure 4 also shows the Census Bureau’s most recent “main series” projections in red. (The projections include both legal and illegal immigrants) In its methodology, the bureau assumed new immigration would be quite high in the coming decades, rising steadily from about 1.6 million a year in 2020 to just under 1.9 million a year in 2060. Net migration (the difference between the number coming versus leaving) is assumed to increase more slowly, from one million a year to 1.1 million annually over this time period. The large-scale immigration projected by the Census Bureau is expected to cause the foreign-born population to reach a record share of the population in 2028 of 14.9 percent and increase to levels thereafter not seen before in American history through the middle of this century. The bureau also projects that the total number of immigrants will be nearly 54 million by the end of this decade, and will continue to grow thereafter. In sum, the Census Bureau projections assume high levels of immigration in the coming years that will cause the foreign-born population to surpass all prior highs, both in terms of their share of the population and in absolute numbers.
Current Trends. The Census Bureau’s most recent projections were developed in 2017 and could not, of course, foresee the slowdown in immigration caused by the election of Donald Trump or as a result of the Covid-19 travel restrictions. As a result, the 47 million immigrants in the country in April of this year is lower than the 48.1 million the bureau projected for July 2022 (Census Bureau projections are for July of each year). But if the current rapid increases continue, both the number of immigrants in the country and their share of the total population will very quickly overtake even what the Census Bureau projected.
What’s Causing the Rapid Growth
What’s Changed? At least some of the dramatic increase in the foreign-born population corresponds to the large surge of illegal immigrants at the southern border. This dramatic increase in border encounters seems closely related to President Biden’s campaign promises that created the perception, well before he even took office, that he would curtail immigration enforcement. Further, the administration’s decision to end the Migrant Protection Protocols (also called Remain in Mexico) for many asylum applicants, the scaling back of Title 42 expulsions, and more recently the decision to end it all together, coupled with the release of some three-quarters of a million illegal immigrants encountered at the border as well as 146,000 unaccompanied minors, almost certainly has encouraged even more illegal immigrants to arrive at the southern border in the hope they, too, will be released into the country. The administration’s suspension of nearly all interior deportations and the resulting dramatic decline in immigration enforcement, including deportations, plus its refusal to automatically take custody of non-citizens released from jails and prisons have all likely made illegal immigrants feel safer, reducing emigration of those already here and encouraging new illegal immigration. Finally, efforts by some in Congress to pass a bill legalizing illegal immigrants and the White House’s continued support for such legislation cannot help but persuade some illegal immigrants in the country not to leave, as well as causing more to come.
Legal Immigration. Illegal immigration is not the only factor causing the sudden growth in the overall foreign-born population. Legal immigration accounts for an estimated one-third of the increase since January 2021. A number of factors have likely contributed to the recent growth in the legal foreign-born population. The restarting of visa processing at American consulates has allowed many more permanent immigrants (green card holders) to arrive from abroad, as well as short-term (e.g., tourists) and long-term temporary visitors (e.g., guestworkers and students). While much of the recent increase in the total foreign-born population is due to illegal immigration, overall those in the country legally account for three-fourths of foreign-born residents. Legal immigration has a much larger impact on American society than illegal immigration.