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An Immigration Tipping Point?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The U.S. Census Bureau’s recent announcement on the nation’s foreign-born percentage of the population may prove a landmark in American demographic history.

It did not make the headlines last week, but the U.S. Census Bureau made an announcement this month that may prove to be a landmark in American demographic history: for the first time since the 1970 census, the nation’s foreign-born percentage of the population has declined.

On their face, the numbers do not sound stunning. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reported that the foreign-born percentage of the nation’s population was 12.6 percent on July 1, 2007, and 12.5 percent on July 1, 2008, and there is some margin of error in ACS data. Nonetheless, this 0.1 percent refers to a large number of people. The foreign-born population was 38,048,456 according to the 2007 ACS and (by my calculation) about 38,007,466 (12.5 percent of 304,059,728) according to the 2008 ACS. That’s a decline of about 40,000 people—and a sharp reversal of trend.

The foreign-born percentage of the U.S. population rose from 9.7 percent in 1850 to 14.7 percent in 1890, subsided slightly to 13.6 percent in 1900 and then rose to 14.7 percent again in 1910.1 Immigration was cut off during the war years 1914 to 1918 and then by restrictive immigration laws passed in 1921 and 1924, and as immigrants died off the foreign-born percentage fell to a post-1850 low of 4.7 percent in 1970. It has risen relentlessly since then, as Latin and Asian immigration has surged, contrary to the expectations of the framers of the 1965 immigration act, to 12.6 percent in 2007, a figure almost as high as those recorded in decennial censuses from 1860 to 1920.

It seems reasonable to expect that the foreign-born percentage will decline even more sharply in the 2008–2009 figures that the Census Bureau will report 12 months from now.

The 2007–2008 figures look like a turning point, particularly because they represent July 1 to July 1 surveys and thus do not include the economic decline that followed the financial crisis of September 2008 and resulted in sharp declines of gross domestic product in the last quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009. It seems reasonable to expect that the foreign-born percentage will decrease even more sharply in the 2008–2009 figures that the Census Bureau will report 12 months from now.

In which states did the foreign-born percentage decline most sharply between July 2007 and July 2008? The following table shows the states with the above national average foreign-born percentages in 2008 and the increase or decrease in those percentages in 2007–2008.


States (and Washington, D.C.) showing an increase in the foreign-born percentage tend to have very low rates of overall population increase. In contrast, the rapidly growing states on the list tend to have declining foreign-born percentages.

Decreases in foreign-born population are particularly notable in the four states which, from mid-2007 to mid-2009, have seen more than half the housing foreclosures in the United States—California, Nevada, Florida, and Arizona. Given the relatively rapid population growth in these states, it appears that their absolute numbers of foreign-born residents have sharply declined—by about 2 percent in California and Nevada, 7 percent in Arizona, and 1 percent in Florida.

Decreases in foreign-born population are particularly notable in the four states which, from mid-2007 to mid-2009, have seen more than half the housing foreclosures in the United States.

In a Washington Examiner column earlier this month I looked at the analysis of recent immigration numbers by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Center for Immigration Studies, two groups which tend to take quite different positions on immigration issues. I concluded: “From this evidence I draw two conclusions. First, stricter enforcement—the border fence, more Border Patrol agents, more stringent employer verification, state and local laws—has reduced the number of illegal immigrants. Second, the recession has reduced the number of both legal and illegal immigrants.

“CIS explicitly and Pew implicitly conclude that immigration will rise again once the economy revives. I'm not so sure. At least some of the stricter enforcement measures will continue. And the reservoir of potential immigrants may be drying up. Birthrates declined significantly in Mexico and Latin America circa 1990. And as immigration scholars Timothy Hatton and Jeffrey Williamson write, emigration rates from Mexico and Latin America—the percentage of population leaving those countries—peaked way back in 1985-94.    

“Moreover, people immigrate not only to make money but to achieve dreams. And one of those dreams has been shattered for many Hispanic immigrants. Most housing foreclosures have occurred in four states—California, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida—and about one-third of those who have lost their homes are Hispanic. Immigration is stimulated by the reports of success that immigrants send back home. It may be discouraged by reports of failure.”

The ACS numbers on foreign-born population reinforce these views. The biggest decline in foreign-born percentage in any state, by an impressive margin, is in Arizona, where the state legislature and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio have taken tough enforcement measures against illegal immigrants (Maricopa County includes the entire Phoenix metropolitan area and some 60 percent of the state’s population). The significant declines in Arizona, California, and Nevada are probably related to the very large number of housing foreclosures in those states. Moreover, one state that showed increases in foreign-born percentages in 2007–2008, Georgia, saw its economy decline and unemployment rate increase sharply after July 2008; I would expect to see the foreign-born percentages there decrease in 2008–2009.

We cannot be sure whether this drop in the foreign-born percentage will just be a temporary decline or whether it will turn out to be a turning point, the beginning of a long period of reduced Latin and Asian immigration. But we can be sure that it represents a major change in the behavior of hundreds of thousands of people—a change about which we need to know more.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Barone also wrote “Republicans and Democrats: A Tale of Two Bases,” on how Democrats on Capitol Hill are much more beholden to their base than are Republicans, and “The GOP's Real Problems for 2012,” reflecting on the Republican Party’s challenges in coming up with a strong presidential nominee in 2012.



1. Here are the percentages as I have calculated them from census records: 1850, 9.7 percent. 1860, 13.2 percent. 1870, 14.4 percent. 1880, 13.3 percent. 1890, 14.8 percent. 1900, 13.6 percent. 1910, 14.7 percent. 1920, 13.2 percent. 1930, 11.6 percent. 1940, 8.8 percent. 1950, 6.9 percent. 1960, 5.4 percent. 1970, 4.7 percent. 1980, 6.2 percent. 1990, 7.9 percent. 2000, 11.1 percent.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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