WASHINGTON — The foreign-born population in the United States has reached its
highest share since 1910, according to government data released Thursday, and
the new arrivals are more likely to come from Asia and to have college degrees
than those who arrived in past decades.
The Census Bureau’s figures for 2017 confirm a major shift in who is coming to
the United States. For years newcomers tended to be from Latin America, but a
Brookings Institution analysis of that data shows that 41 percent of the people
who said they arrived since 2010 came from Asia. Just 39 percent were from Latin
America. About 45 percent were college educated, the analysis found, compared
with about 30 percent of those who came between 2000 and 2009.
“This is quite different from what we had thought,” said William H. Frey, the
senior demographer at the Brookings Institution who conducted the analysis. “We
think of immigrants as being low-skilled workers from Latin America, but for
recent arrivals that’s much less the case. People from Asia have overtaken
people from Latin America.”
The new data was released as the nation’s changing demography has become a flash
point in American politics. President Trump, and many Republicans, have sounded
alarms about immigration and suggested the government needs to restrict both the
number and types of people coming into the country.
The foreign-born population stood at 13.7 percent in 2017, or 44.5 million
people, according to the data, compared with 13.5 percent in 2016.
The last historic peak in immigration to the United States came at the end of
the 19th century, when large numbers of Europeans fled poverty and violence in
their home countries. Some
of the largest numbers came from Germany, Italy and Poland.
That wave peaked around the turn of the century, when the total foreign-born
population stood at nearly 15 percent. But after the passage of strict racial
quotas in the 1920s, the foreign-born population fell sharply for decades in the
middle of the 20th century. By 1970, the population was below 5 percent.
The passage of a more liberal immigration law in 1965, which ended ethnic quotas
and prioritized family reunification, ushered in new demographics. And the
changes have only accelerated in recent years.
For many years, Mexico was the single largest contributor of immigrants. But
since 2010, the number of immigrants arriving from Mexico has declined, while
those from China and India have surged. Since 2010, the increase in the number
of people from Asia — 2.6 million — was more than double the 1.2 million who
came from Latin America, Mr. Frey found.
Some of the largest gains were in states with the smallest immigrant
populations, suggesting that immigrants were spreading out in the country. New
York and California, states with large immigrant populations, both had increases
of less than six percent since 2010. But foreign-born populations rose by 20
percent in Tennessee, 13 percent in Ohio, 12 percent in South Carolina and 20
percent in Kentucky over the same period.
Emmanuel D’Souza, a nurse practitioner in Dayton, Ohio, who emigrated from India
in 2004, said he has noticed a growing and thriving Indian population in his
“Now when you go to the grocery store at 5 or 6 in the evening, you see a lot of
Indian people, buying vegetables after work,” said Mr. D’Souza.
He said he saw fewer Indian people when he bought his house in 2009 than he does
today. Now he counted at least four temples and two mosques, and said there are
two Indian specialty grocery stores. Mr. D’Souza, 41, who is Catholic, also sees
Indians in church on Sundays.
The data also suggests a political pattern among states with large percentages
of foreign-born residents. Of the 15 states with the highest concentration of
immigrants, all but three — Florida, Texas and Arizona — voted for Hillary
Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. Many of the states with low and moderate
concentrations of foreign-born people voted for Mr. Trump, Mr. Frey found.
In those low-concentration states, foreign-born populations tended to be more
educated than the native-born. In Ohio, for example, 43 percent of the
foreign-born population is college educated, compared with just 27 percent of
American-born Ohioans. About 43 percent of the foreign-born population is from
Asia, far more than the 20 percent from Latin America.
The same can be true in states with large immigrant populations. About 15
percent of the population of Maryland last year was foreign-born. Of those
people, 42 percent had college degrees, compared with 39 percent of
Chao Wu, a data scientist in Columbia, Maryland, who came from China in 2003,
said he had long known about Asian graduate students in the United States,
because he had been one. But it wasn’t until he started running for a seat on
his county’s board of education that he noticed the richness and variation in
“I increased my outreach and I realized there was a big Asian-American business
community, with restaurants and grocery stores,” he said. He said he recently
helped organize a ceremony in his town with a sister city in China. A portion of
Route 40 was renamed Korean Way.
But the rising levels of education are not lifting everyone. Asian-Americans are
now the most economically divided racial or ethnic group in the country,
according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
Income inequality among Asian-Americans nearly doubled from 1970 to 2016.
While people from Asia make up the largest share of recent newcomers, a majority
of the country’s total foreign-born population is still from Latin America — 50
percent, compared to 31 percent from Asia.
North Dakota had the single largest percentage increase in foreign-born
residents since 2010, Mr. Frey said, with the number going up by 87 percent. Dr. Fadel
E. Nammour, a gastroenterologist in Fargo, N.D., who moved to the United
States from Lebanon in 1996, said he has noticed more immigrant-owned
restaurants since he moved to North Dakota in 2002. In recent years, the state has
settled refugees from countries including Iraq, Somalia and
Congo. In all, foreign-born people in North Dakota rose to 31,000 in 2017 from
just 16,600 in 2010, Mr. Frey found.
“There is more diversity now,” Dr. Nammour said. “You can tell by food. There
are Indian places that opened up. We have an African place now. Little things
that are a little bit different.”