The Impact of Immigration

Here is a chart of the absolute number of immigrants admitted to the United States as permanent residents for the years 1820–2017 according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2017.  (Click on these charts to expand to full resolution.)

U.S. Immigration: 1820–2017

I’m sure you’ve seen a chart like this before, which shows a series of waves of immigration punctuated by gaps due to insurrections, changes in policy, economic crises, and wars which allowed assimilation of immigrants and their offspring.

But one might argue that the impact of immigration on a society doesn’t depend so much upon the absolute numbers of immigrants as the fraction of immigrants admitted compared to the existing (presumed largely assimilated) population.

To explore this, I downloaded U.S. Census data for the U.S. population between the years 1820 and 2017 and, since these data are only available at ten year intervals, performed a linear interpolation between the decadal census data.  (It might have been better to use a power law model, but why complicate things?)  I then divided the immigration data by the extrapolated population to obtain the fraction of the existing population who were admitted as permanent resident immigrants in each year, expressed as a percentage of the population that year.

Immigration: Immigrants as a fraction of population

This is a very different picture.  There are clearly two different epochs.  In the first, between 1820 and 1930, the U.S. was “filling up the empty country” by admitting large numbers of immigrants.  Then, due to immigration restrictions in the Immigration Act of 1924 and the subsequent economic depression and war, immigration remained at low levels until 1946 when, in the immediate postwar period, it jumped.  In this view, the impact of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was not the discontinuous change some present it as (at least in terms of absolute numbers; it may have changed the composition of the immigrant population, which is not captured in these statistics).

Instead, the trend established after 1946 continued to rise continuously until 1989–1991 when it went all whacko.  These numbers, as a fraction of the population, haven’t been seen 1923 or since.  If you take out those crazy years, the overall trend of immigration as a fraction of the existing population continues to rise almost linearly since 1946.

As you may have observed, my essays are heavy on numbers and light on interpretation.  But I must ask, “Why?”

Why do the United States need more people?

Between the founding of the country and the closing of the frontier in 1912, the population was less than 95 million.  With a population of 142 million in 1945, the U.S. contributed mightily to the defeat of fascism in World War II.  With a population of 201 million in 1969, it landed two of its citizens on the Moon.  With a population of 252 million in 1991, it saw out the Soviet Union, ending the Cold War.  Its population is now around 323 million.  How many more does it need?  And where will it find immigrants who are better equipped to build its future than the people already within its borders?

Will the U.S. be richer, more powerful, and more influential on the world stage if, in 2050, its population is 500 million?  Will this be the case if a large fraction of that population consists of immigrants from countries with no history of self-governance or institutions of education?

You can download the raw data and chart definitions used to compose this post (radical transparency!) from this archive as a LibreOffice ODS file.

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Author: John Walker

Founder of Ratburger.org, Autodesk, Inc., and Marinchip Systems. Author of The Hacker's Diet. Creator of www.fourmilab.ch.

18 thoughts on “The Impact of Immigration”

  1. John Walker:
    the impact of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was not the discontinuous change some present it as (at least in terms of absolute numbers; it may have changed the composition of the immigrant population, which is not captured in these statistics).

    The composition is the key point. The 1965 Act changed the criteria for admitting immigrants from emphasizing skills to giving greater weight to family unification. In short, the policy became immigrant-centric versus the former US-centric (how it benefits the US). There are other aspects to the change in composition which are also important but this one is less controversial.

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  2. Another thing that’s missing, the elephant in the room, is illegal immigration. The DHS website doesn’t make it easy to get that data: each year has to be downloaded individually and I’m simply too lazy to do that. However, the 1999 Estimates document has a handy table of Estimated Illegal Immigrant Population. Undoubtedly, these are low-ball estimates but still instructive:

    NumbersUSA probably has better data.

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  3. John Walker:
    performed a linear interpolation between the decadal census data.  (It might have been better to use a power law model, but why complicate things?)

    Because it’s always better to use a power law.

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  4. Why does the US need more people?   The more prosperous a nation gets, the lower its birth-rate becomes.  All of Western Europe and the US have gotten prosperous enough that their birth-rates are below “replacement level”.  This causes a fairly rapid increase in the average age of the population.  Those older people cost more than younger people do, especially when a huge cohort such as the Baby Boomers (of which I am one) start to retire, and claim Social Security benefits.  Baby Boomers have heard a constant drumbeat of “how to claim your maximum SS benefits” from multiple sources for years, so they draw more and more of society’s resources for their upkeep.  I interpret that as “how to make your neighbors and your children and grandchildren pay more to you”, which is one reason why I am still working full-time at 69 and have no intention of retiring.  As people live longer, and fewer are born, fewer and fewer younger workers support each retiree.  Immigration tends to provide more of those younger workers to support us old folks.

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  5. RB49:
    Immigration tends to provide more of those younger workers to support us old folks.

    But they’re not going to.  They’re not stupid.

    I recall a blog post I wrote a while ago called something like “Option C: Shiver Hungry in the Dark For All I Care”.  I’ve seen it coming since I was 21 and got out of the Navy, took a look at my first civilian paycheck (since the teen-age dishwashing and landscaping years), and realized it was unsustainable.  I was literally standing in a field with a trailer-mounted air compressor and an air hammer, a truck-bed full of t-posts, and a paycheck, and I’m looking at the Social Security deduction thinking “There’s no way I’ll see that again”.  If even I don’t buy the premise, there’s no reason for people from poor places with less faith in contracts and the persistence of systems to.

    The “young immigrants” to Europe won’t pay to support the leisure of yesterday’s white people.  The barbarian hordes are always hostile and cruel, but not stupid.  Stupidity is opening the gate.

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  6. Haakon Dahl:

    RB49:
    Immigration tends to provide more of those younger workers to support us old folks.

    But they’re not going to.  They’re not stupid.

    I recall a blog post I wrote a while ago called something like “Option C: Shiver Hungry in the Dark For All I Care”.  I’ve seen it coming since I was 21 and got out of the Navy, took a look at my first civilian paycheck (since the teen-age dishwashing and landscaping years), and realized it was unsustainable.  I was literally standing in a field with a trailer-mounted air compressor and an air hammer, a truck-bed full of t-posts, and a paycheck, and I’m looking at the Social Security deduction thinking “There’s no way I’ll see that again”.  If even I don’t buy the premise, there’s no reason for people from poor places with less faith in contracts and the persistence of systems to.

    The “young immigrants” to Europe won’t pay to support the leisure of yesterday’s white people.  The barbarian hordes are always hostile and cruel, but not stupid.  Stupidity is opening the gate.

    Hmm, what do you call a scheme that takes in money so it can pay off the first investors? I am pretty sure it is not Social Security.

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  7. 10 Cents:

    Haakon Dahl:

    RB49:
    Immigration tends to provide more of those younger workers to support us old folks.

    But they’re not going to.  They’re not stupid.

    I recall a blog post I wrote a while ago called something like “Option C: Shiver Hungry in the Dark For All I Care”.  I’ve seen it coming since I was 21 and got out of the Navy, took a look at my first civilian paycheck (since the teen-age dishwashing and landscaping years), and realized it was unsustainable.  I was literally standing in a field with a trailer-mounted air compressor and an air hammer, a truck-bed full of t-posts, and a paycheck, and I’m looking at the Social Security deduction thinking “There’s no way I’ll see that again”.  If even I don’t buy the premise, there’s no reason for people from poor places with less faith in contracts and the persistence of systems to.

    The “young immigrants” to Europe won’t pay to support the leisure of yesterday’s white people.  The barbarian hordes are always hostile and cruel, but not stupid.  Stupidity is opening the gate.

    Hmm, what do you call a scheme that takes in money so it can pay off the first investors? I am pretty sure it is not Social Security.

    Here’s that blog post I mentioned.

    This system was never built to last even if it had not been abused, but it has been ransacked.  […] all that remains is a system of empty shells.  Now you want to retire on it, and there’s nothing left.  So you’ve borrowed the money from overseas, and told them that my generations will pay for it.

    Well maybe we will, and maybe we won’t.

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  8. drlorentz:
    Another thing that’s missing, the elephant in the room, is illegal immigration. The DHS website doesn’t make it easy to get that data: each year has to be downloaded individually and I’m simply too lazy to do that. However, the 1999 Estimates document has a handy table of Estimated Illegal Immigrant Population. Undoubtedly, these are low-ball estimates but still instructive:

    NumbersUSA probably has better data.

    These figures show that the number of people actually entering the US annually (illegally) is about five times the number the government says are new legal permanent residents. Is not, then, the government’s number meaningless? That larger number of people, described by Samuel Huntington in Who Are We? mostly continue speak Spanish (unlike earlier waves of language-diverse immigrants who had to speak English to get along economically) and tend to not assimilate like the early waves of diverse immigrants. Their children and grandchildren, according to Huntington, are even less likely to assimilate or to succeed economically. This latter fact, he points out, is a stark reversal of the assimilation behavior of the prior large waves of immigrants. They wanted to become Americans, and did so.

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  9. civil westman:
    These figures show that the number of people actually entering the US annually (illegally) is about five times the number the government says are new legal permanent residents.

    As I read the 1999 Estimates document, the table of illegal immigrants is an estimate of the total illegal population resident in the U.S. as of October 1996, not the yearly influx.  It states that as of that date, the illegal alien population was growing by about 275,000 per year (p. 3).  Thus, to the extent the latter number can be believed, and in that era, the yearly illegal population growth was around one quarter of the new legal permanent residents.

    Today estimates of the total illegal population range from 12 to 22 million.  Basically, nobody knows.

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  10. An interesting document looking to the future is the U.S. Census Bureau “2017 National Population Projections Tables”, which provides forecasts of the U.S. population year by year from 2017 through 2060.  The complex methodology used in making these estimates is explained in the “Methodologies and Assumptions” document [PDF].  The detailed tables are presented as gnarly spreadsheet files you can download from the page.  I have taken the liberty of making an image of the master population projections table, which you can click to display at full resolution.

    U.S. Census Bureau: population projections, 2016-2060

    What is interesting about these numbers is that on the assumption that the rate of immigration continues around where it is today, it will account for around 2/3 of total population growth over this period.  My understanding from the Methodology document is that they are likely only counting legal immigration (the magnitude of the numbers they cite are consistent with the current data for legal permanent residents added per year), so you’ll have to add your own guess of the number of illegals to these numbers.

    If you believe these numbers, by 2060 the U.S. will have added 76 million people to its population, about equal to the population of the entire country in 1900, with around 2/3 of coming from abroad.  Whence?

    The total number of foreign-born immigrants is projected to be 1.88 million in 2060. In 2060, just over 500,000 immigrants are projected to come from Asian countries and about 400,000 are projected to come from Mexico. More than 300,000 are projected to come from Latin America, the Caribbean, and the South America region in 2060 while another 250,000 are projected to come from Europe, Canada, and Oceania.  Immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa are projected to increase the most, rising from 93,000 in 2017 to over 250,000 in 2060, surpassing immigration from Europe, Canada, and Oceania. Immigrants from the Near East and North Africa are projected to increase to about 100,000 in 2060.  (p. 11)

    Note that the numbers in the table are net migration, while the quote above refers to immigrants, not the net number of immigrants minus emigrants.

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  11. John Walker:

    civil westman:
    These figures show that the number of people actually entering the US annually (illegally) is about five times the number the government says are new legal permanent residents.

    As I read the 1999 Estimates document, the table of illegal immigrants is an estimate of the total illegal population resident in the U.S. as of October 1996, not the yearly influx.  It states that as of that date, the illegal alien population was growing by about 275,000 per year (p. 3).  Thus, to the extent the latter number can be believed, and in that era, the yearly illegal population growth was around one quarter of the new legal permanent residents.

    Today estimates of the total illegal population range from 12 to 22 million.  Basically, nobody knows.

    Sorry for my misreading. I am amazed, almost daily, by how much stupidity can accrete with age. Having the sense I have lived by my wits, this is frustrating and discouraging. Even the half-life of my IQ seems to be shrinking.

    Regardless of the numbers, illegal immigration is wrong and unfair to citizen/taxpayers. Open borders would be a terrific thing in a world where fundamental values regarding liberty and governance prevailed. We are not close to or even headed in the direction of such a world.

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  12. RB49:
    The more prosperous a nation gets, the lower its birth-rate becomes. All of Western Europe and the US have gotten prosperous enough that their birth-rates are below “replacement level”.

    This is true to a point, i.e., Third World countries experience lower birthrates as they gain wealth. This change is from an explosive rate to a still-above-replacement rate. This trend need not continue to below-replacement rate because of wealth; other cultural and legal forces are at work. The evidence for this is that countries less wealthy (lower per capita GDP) than the US have significantly lower fertility. Furthermore, there are wealthy, high-fertility countries (e.g., Israel). There’s a tremendous amount of scatter in the data (see graph below). There is no iron law connecting greater wealth to lower fertility at these levels.

    Among the likely suspects for these other forces are

    1. increased immigration, especially of the illegal kind, which depresses wages
    2. radical feminism, which devalues family life and child bearing
    3. the increased role of government as a surrogate provider and parent

    Incentives are important for human behavior. The incentives are stacked against reproduction in Western countries. Japan is a special case about which I am less informed but I suspect some of the same forces are also at work (not immigration) along with some unique to Japan.

    For reference, I include all the data, which does show a trend for low-income countries. There’s still plenty of scatter in the data.

    source: Gapminder (There’s more recent data but I haven’t gotten around to downloading it yet. These statistics change very slowly.)

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  13. Haakon Dahl:
    Here’s that blog post I mentioned.

    It’s a good post. They didn’t take the deal. Too bad. I disagree with your last sentence, though.

    As you boomers used to say: Ti-i-ime is on my side.

    Boomers can run out the clock. By the conventional definition of the baby-boom, half of the boomers are already on the dole. There’s about 15 years before the situation reaches crisis proportions, at which time there will be some kind of band-aid fix to keep it limping along for a while longer. Meanwhile, the boomers will have done a fair job of sucking the “trust fund” dry. A goodly fraction will already be dead, having received their full benefits.

    Sorry, time is not on your side, unfair as that may be. I’m old enough to remember when Jimmy Carter informed us that “Life’s not fair.” More accurately, “Lahfe’s not fayer.”

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