In charts: The shifting tides of US immigration

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By usawebstories

Immigration has been central to the American experiment from the start. After a decline during the middle and end of the 20th century, the immigrant population in the United States is nearing the peaks of the early 1900s.

This growth is still modest – immigrants made up just under 14% of the total population last year. It’s slower than in other wealthy nations.

Gridlock in Congress has kept America’s immigration system effectively frozen in the 1990s, and this legislative impasse affects not just safety and security, experts say, but also the economic prosperity of the country as well.

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An influx of migrants is testing the capacity of U.S. cities to respond. Yet a broader look at immigration trends tells a story more nuanced than “crisis” headlines.

“Immigrant workers are increasingly supporting our labor force growth as our population ages and birth rates lower,” says Julia Gelatt, associate director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. “Our immigration pathways aren’t keeping up with the ways we want to use them today,” she adds.


Migration Policy Institute, U.S. Census Bureau, Cato Institute, United Nations, Migation Policy Institute, Pew Research Center


Henry Gass and Jacob Turcotte/Staff

The federal government issues a limited number of temporary visas and even fewer permanent residency cards (often called “green cards”), every year. A surge in tech companies’ hiring foreign workers on temporary visas has resulted in immigrants from India facing impossibly long waits – more than 100 years at current rates – to get a green card, says Ms. Gelatt.

Improving legal immigration pathways into the U.S. is critical for the nation’s economic and national security, concluded a white paper published last month by the Council on National Security and Immigration. A group of big city mayors wrote to President Joe Biden in October asking for more support helping migrants in their cities find jobs so they can move out of shelters and support themselves and their families.

Meanwhile for the first time in decades, America’s immigrant population – both legal and unauthorized – has been growing slower than those in most other wealthy nations. While a majority of Americans think immigration is good for the country, a growing number want it curtailed, according to Gallup. Republican lawmakers in particular have pushed to restrict immigration in recent years.

“There’s more openness to legal immigration than illegal immigration, but the daylight between the two is narrowing every day,” says David Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. The fact that most migrants at the southern border are in fact entering legally by requesting asylum “inevitably blurs the line,” he adds.

Furthering negative views of immigration are the beliefs that immigrants commit more crimes than native-born residents and take jobs from them, experts say. Both are unfounded, according to decades of statistics and research.

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