The foreign-born share of the U.S. population has returned to its late-19th-century level.
Oct 9, 2018
Immigrants have always been part of the American story, though immigration has waxed and waned over time. Immigration during the second half of the 19th century lifted the foreign-born share of the population to 14 percent. Starting in the 1910s, however, immigration to the United States fell precipitously, and the foreign-born share of the population reached a historic low of 4.7 percent in 1970.
This drop occurred in large part because of policy changes that limited immigration into the United States. Beginning with late-19th-century and early-20th-century policies that were directed against immigrants from particular countries—for example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—the federal government then implemented comprehensive national origin quotas and other restrictions, reducing total immigration inflows from more than 1 million immigrants annually in the late 1910s to only 165,000 by 1924 (Abramitzky and Boustan 2017; Martin 2010). Economic turmoil during the Great Depression and two world wars also contributed to declining immigration and a lower foreign-born fraction through the middle of the 20th century (Blau and Mackie 2017).
In the second half of the 20th century, a series of immigration reforms—including the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act—repealed national origin quotas and implemented family reunification and skilled immigration policies. In 1986 amnesty was provided to many people who were living in the United States without documentation (Clark, Hatton, and Williamson 2007). Unauthorized immigration was estimated at about 500,000 in the early 2000s, but has since dropped sharply to a roughly zero net inflow (Blau and Mackie 2017).
The foreign-born fraction of the population rose steadily from 1970 to its 2017 level of 13.7 percent. From 2001–14, legal immigration rose to roughly 1 million per year, marking a return to the level of the early 20th century, but now representing a much smaller share of the total U.S. population. Today, there is a wide variation of the foreign-born population across states, ranging from under 5 percent in parts of the Southeast and Midwest to over 20 percent in California, Florida, New Jersey, and New York (Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS] 2017; authors’ calculations).