Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S.

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The United States has long been—and continues to be—a key destination for the world’s immigrants. Over the decades, immigrants from different parts of the world arrived in the U.S. and settled in different states and cities. This led to the rise of immigrant communities in many parts of the U.S.

The nation’s first great influx of immigrants came from Northern and Western Europe. In 1850, the Irish were the largest immigrant group nationally and in most East Coast and Southern states. By the 1880s, Germans were the nation’s largest immigrant group in many Midwestern and Southern states. At the same time, changes to U.S. immigration policy had a great impact on the source countries of immigrants. In 1880, Chinese immigrants were the largest foreign-born group in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Nevada. But with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese immigrants were prevented from entering the U.S. As a result, other immigrant groups rose to become the largest in those states.

Fifty years after passage of the landmark law that rewrote U.S. immigration policy, nearly 59 million immigrants have arrived in the United States, pushing the country’s foreign-born share to a near record 14%. For the past half-century, these modern-era immigrants and their descendants have accounted for just over half the nation’s population growth and have reshaped its racial and ethnic composition.

Looking ahead, new Pew Research Center U.S. population projections show that if current demographic trends continue, future immigrants and their descendants will be an even bigger source of population growth. Between 2015 and 2065, they are projected to account for 88% of the U.S. population increase, or 103 million people, as the nation grows to 441 million.

These are some key findings of a new Pew Research analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data and new Pew Research U.S. population projections through 2065, which provide a 100-year look at immigration’s impact on population growth and on racial and ethnic change. In addition, this report uses newly released Pew Research survey data to examine U.S. public attitudes toward immigration, and it employs census data to analyze changes in the characteristics of recently arrived immigrants and paint a statistical portrait of the historical and 2013 foreign-born populations.

Immigration since 1965 has swelled the nation’s foreign-born population from 9.6 million then to a record 45 million in 2015. The current immigrant population is lower than the 59 million total who arrived since 1965 because of deaths and departures from the U.S. By 2065, the U.S. will have 78 million immigrants, according to the new Pew Research population projections.

The nation’s immigrant population increased sharply from 1970 to 2000, though the rate of growth has slowed since then. Still, the U.S. has—by far—the world’s largest immigrant population, holding about one-in-five of the world’s immigrants.

Between 1965 and 2015, new immigrants, their children and their grandchildren accounted for 55% of U.S. population growth. They added 72 million people to the nation’s population as it grew from 193 million in 1965 to 324 million in 2015.

This fast-growing immigrant population also has driven the share of the U.S. population that is foreign born from 5% in 1965 to 14% today and will push it to a projected record 18% in 2065. Already, today’s 14% foreign-born share is a near historic record for the U.S., just slightly below the 15% levels seen shortly after the turn of the 20th century. The combined population share of immigrants and their U.S.-born children, 26% today, is projected to rise to 36% in 2065, at least equaling previous peak levels at the turn of the 20th century.

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act made significant changes to U.S. immigration policy by sweeping away a long-standing national origins quota system that favored immigrants from Europe and replacing it with one that emphasized family reunification and skilled immigrants. At the time, relatively few anticipated the size or demographic impact of the post-1965 immigration flow. In absolute numbers, the roughly 59 million immigrants who arrived in the U.S. between 1965 and 2015 exceed those who arrived in the great waves of European-dominated immigration during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Between 1840 and 1889, 14.3 million immigrants came to the U.S., and between 1890 and 1919, an additional 18.2 million arrived.

After the replacement of the nation’s European-focused origin quota system, greater numbers of immigrants from other parts of the world began to come to the U.S. Among immigrants who have arrived since 1965, half (51%) are from Latin America and one-quarter are from Asia. By comparison, both of the U.S. immigration waves in the mid-19th century and early 20th century consisted almost entirely of European immigrants.

As a result of its changed makeup and rapid growth, new immigration since 1965 has altered the nation’s racial and ethnic composition. In 1965, 84% of Americans were non-Hispanic whites. By 2015, that share had declined to 62%. Meanwhile, the Hispanic share of the U.S. population rose from 4% in 1965 to 18% in 2015. Asians also saw their share rise, from less than 1% in 1965 to 6% in 2015.

The Pew Research analysis shows that without any post-1965 immigration, the nation’s racial and ethnic composition would be very different today: 75% white, 14% black, 8% Hispanic and less than 1% Asian. The arrival of so many immigrants slightly reduced the nation’s median age, the age at which half the population is older and half is younger. The U.S. population’s median age in 1965 was 28 years, rising to 38 years in 2015 and a projected 42 years in 2065. Without immigration since 1965, the nation’s median age would have been slightly older—41 years in 2015; without immigration from 2015 to 2065, it would be a projected 45 years.

By the early 20th century, a new wave of immigration was underway, with a majority coming from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe. By the 1930s, Italians were the largest immigrant group in the nation and in nine states, including New York, Louisiana, New Jersey and Nevada.

The composition of immigrants changed again in the post-1965 immigration era. By the 1980s, Mexicans became the nation’s largest immigrant group; by 2013, they were the largest immigrant group in 33 states. But other immigrant groups are represented as well. Chinese immigrants are the largest immigrant group in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Indians are the largest immigrant group in New Jersey. Filipinos are the largest immigrant group in Alaska and Hawaii.

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