Immigration

The Past, Present and Future of U.S. Immigration

How do current levels compare to those of a century ago? And why does it matter?

Poetry isn't policy.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

White House policy adviser Stephen Miller's prickly performance at a news conference last week to discuss new immigration legislation didn't get the greatest reviews. But I actually kind of enjoyed his response to CNN correspondent Jim Acosta's charge (the quotes that follow are from CNN's transcript of the briefing) that "what you're proposing here, what the president's proposing here does not sound like it's in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration."

Acosta said cutting immigration quotas and favoring skilled immigrants and those who already speak English went against the Statue of Liberty motto of "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Miller retorted:

Jim, let's talk about this.

In 1970, when we let in 300,000 people a year, was that violating or not violating the Statue of Liberty law of the land? In the 1990s, when it was 500,000 a year, was it violating or not violating the Statue of Liberty law of the land?

No, tell me what years -- tell me what years -- tell me what years meet -- tell me what years meet Jim Acosta's definition of the Statue of Liberty poem law of the land. So, you're saying one million a year is the Statue of Liberty number; 900,000 violates it, 900,000 violates it?

Since 2000, the number of foreigners granted lawful resident status by the U.S. has averaged about 1 million a year. The new immigration bill introduced last week by Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia and endorsed by the White House would reduce that to an estimated 540,000 people a year within 10 years. This particular bill's chances of getting through Congress appear to be quite slim, but Miller is right that immigration quotas have changed in the past and will surely change in the future, and that the Emma Lazarus sonnet engraved on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty does not offer a reliable numerical guide to how many green cards should be handed out each year. It's a political decision, and political coalitions and calculations change over time.

It does seem important, though, that people be aware of how current legal immigration levels compare with those of past decades and centuries. The proper metric would seem to be not so much numbers of immigrants as their percentage of U.S. population:

Legal Immigration to the U.S.

Persons obtaining lawful permanent resident status

Sources: Department of Homeland Security, Census Bureau

So legal immigration (1) had generally been rising from the mid-1940s until about a decade ago, (2) has declined a bit since 2006 and (3) is now well below the long-run historical average of 0.45 percent of the population per year. (If you're wondering about that big spike in 1990 and 1991, it's a result of the 1986 immigration legislation that gave illegal immigrants who had arrived in the U.S. before 1982 a path to green cards and citizenship.) 

It's important to keep in mind that the foreign-born share of the total population, estimated by the Pew Research Center at 13.4 percent as of 2015, is well above the long-run average and much closer to the all-time highs of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The difference between the two measures can be ascribed partly to the fact that about 11 million of today's 44.7 million foreign-born residents don't have lawful resident status (which before World War I was awarded to pretty much anybody who showed up in the U.S. and wasn't a convict, a prostitute, mentally or physically disabled or, after 1882, Chinese), and partly because declining birth rates in the U.S. mean that immigration plays a bigger role in population growth now than it did back then. 

But back to those legal immigration flows, since that's what the legislation proposed last week addresses. Viewed over two centuries, it's the ultra-low flows from 1931 to the late 1940s -- which followed the enactment of sweeping immigration restrictions in 1917, 1921 and 1924 but were also affected by an economic depression and a world war -- that look like the biggest anomaly, while current immigration levels look pretty normal.

There are those who object that comparisons with the 19th and early 20th centuries are inappropriate, because in that pre-welfare-state era immigrants did not impose the same costs on society that they do now. This is a bigger issue for countries with more generous social programs, some of which have had far more trouble integrating immigrants into the workforce than the U.S. has. Overall, the evidence indicates that immigration continues to represent a net economic gain for this country. But immigration policy definitely did change dramatically in the first half of the 20th century, so I've included a dotted line in the chart showing the average immigration rate since 1933, which is when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office and started building the American version of the welfare state. 1

Current legal immigration flows are above that average -- 0.33 percent of the population in 2015 to 0.22 percent on average since 1933. The changes proposed in the Cotton-Perdue legislation would push the rate below that, to about 0.16 percent of the population.

Both current and proposed flows are way below the 1.12 percent-of-population immigration rate of 1883, when New York poet and Yimby 2 Emma Lazarus beckoned the huddled masses as part of an effort to raise funds for a pedestal for the soon-to-arrive Statue of Liberty. Her words were posthumously added to the monument itself in 1903 after a campaign led by a friend, and there's been a concerted effort in recent months by immigration restrictionists (Miller among them) to discredit them as an illegitimate add-on. That's silly -- the poem now defines the statue, and it has deservedly become part of the American canon. It's also a pretty fair representation of this country's approach to immigration up to about 1917. But as lawmakers in Washington have made clear again and again since then, it's not official U.S. immigration policy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. I also thought about measuring from one of the immigration-legislation years of 1917 or 1924, but both would have resulted in averages nearly identical to the 1933-2015 one.

  2. For "yes in my backyard." Not only was the fourth-generation New Yorker a fan of immigration, but she also ardently supported economist Henry George's land-value tax, which has been recommended recently -- by my Bloomberg View colleague Noah Smith, among others -- as a possible tool to spur more housing construction in high-priced cities such as New York and San Francisco.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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