Recently released Census Bureau data from the 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) show that in the first two years of the Trump administration, growth in the immigrant population (legal and illegal) averaged only about 200,000 a year, which stands in stark contrast with the roughly 650,000 a year from 2010 to 2017. The bureau refers to immigrants as “foreign-born,” which includes anyone who was not a U.S. citizen at birth — naturalized citizens, green card holders, long-term temporary visitors, and illegal aliens. It seems almost certain that the slowdown in growth was the result of Trump-administration policies.
One can debate whether this falloff in growth is a positive or negative development, but it is clear that the often-made argument that immigration is like a force of nature, largely driven by economics and outside the control of governmental policy, is false. Although the lower courts have fought the president at every turn, the federal bureaucracy has been resistive, many states have actively subverted the rule of law, and Congress has offered no help, changes adopted by the administration did reduce immigration — both legal and illegal.
When looking at the new data from the ACS, the first thing to keep in mind is that it runs through the middle of July 2019, well before COVID-19 hit. Second, growth in the total number of immigrants does not simply reflect new arrivals, but rather represents the combined effect of natural mortality among the existing immigrant population, out-migration, and the number of newcomers. Deaths (roughly 300,000 annually) do not fluctuate much year over year. So the slowdown must have been caused by a falloff in both new arrivals and an increase in immigrants returning home.
The number of new immigrants arriving fell during the Great Recession and then rebounded, peaking at 1.7 million in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration. But in 2017, the number reached 1.4 million, and 1.3 million the year after that. The number looks to be similar for 2019, as well. So, while the slowdown in growth partly reflects a decline in newcomers, the really big change seems to have been out-migration — the number of immigrants leaving.
It is possible to calculate the number who left by taking new arrivals and subtracting growth and deaths. This calculation indicates that between 2010 and 2017, about 470,000 immigrants left each year on average. But between 2017 and 2019, 975,000 left each year on average. It may be hard to believe, but it appears that out-migration doubled in the first half of the Trump administration.
So who is leaving? The ACS shows that all of the decline is among non-citizens, (e.g. green card holders, foreign students, guestworkers, and illegal immigrants), not naturalized citizens. It does not appear that it is well-established, long-time legal immigrants or naturalized citizens who are heading home in larger numbers. Rather it seems that more illegal immigrants left and fewer arrived, primarily from Mexico. It may also be the case that more long-term visitors, primarily foreign students and guestworkers, went home instead of overstaying their visas and joining the illegal population.
We may not be able to pinpoint all of the reasons for the falloff in new arrivals and the increase in out-migration, but we can rule out the economy. Unemployment among immigrants, already low in 2016, continued to decline through 2019. So it is not as if immigrants had much difficulty securing jobs. Moreover, more than 5 million jobs were created over this time period.
Perhaps the best news on the economy, before COVID-19, was that labor-force participation — the share working or looking for work — was improving. Indeed, the long-term decline in labor-force participation over the last half century has been one of the most troubling social trends in America. It has been particularly pronounced among those without a college education.
Data through 2019 show that the slowdown in immigration coincided with a recovery in labor-force participation, including among the less educated. Wage growth has also been reasonably strong. We do not know the extent to which less immigration contributed to these positive developments. But at the very least, we can say that the new data do not support the argument that we must have very high levels of immigration in order to create economic prosperity. In fact, the new data are consistent with the opposite proposition — that workers actually benefit from less competition with new immigrants.
A few weeks ago, my colleague Mark Krikorian highlighted in National Review many of the immigration policy successes (and some failures) of the Trump administration. Some of the policies that have likely slowed immigration include reducing refugee resettlement, tightening public-charge rules, forcing Mexico and Central American countries to give asylum seekers safe haven, increased border fencing, and more worksite enforcement. The efforts to end the administrative amnesties of DACA and Temporary Protected Status may have caused some illegal immigrants to leave and discouraged others from coming, as well. There are also a series of small administrative reforms that probably had some effect on the numbers.
Of course the slowdown in growth should not be overstated. It is still the case that the nation’s immigrant population hit a new record number of 44.9 million in July 2019. As a share of the U.S. population, immigrants made up 13.7 percent in 2019, the highest percentage in 109 years. Adding in their minor (under 18) children raises the total to 62 million — nearly one in five U.S. residents.
One may wonder about the general accuracy of Census surveys, especially when it comes to capturing illegal immigrants. Though some immigrants are missed by the survey, the Pew Research Center, the Center for Migration Studies, DHS, Center for Immigration Studies (my own organization), and others all use this data to measure illegal immigration. It is also worth noting that the ACS identifies significant growth in Central Americans, which corresponds to the surge of Central American asylum seekers at the southern border. It also shows a big increase in immigrants from Venezuela, where political instability has caused a significant increase in temporary visitors, now overstaying their visas. In sum, the survey results do match up pretty well with what we are seeing on the ground.
The bottom line from the new numbers is that the desire of immigrants to come to America is not the only relevant factor. Immigration is not like the weather — it is possible to control it, even when the economy is strong. It seems likely that American workers have benefited from the reduction in immigration. Lower levels of immigration may also facilitate the assimilation of immigrant families already here. Less immigration can help reduce the strain immigrants can create on public services, such as education and health care. Of course, for these positive things to continue, current policies and lower levels of immigration would have to be sustained. That is something voters will have to decide on November 3.