Facts Regarding U.S. Immigrants

Written by Richard Hokenson 

Inflammatory language regarding immigrants often dominates the discussion regarding the foreign-born population. The basic narrative is that immigrants represent both a physical and economic threat to native-born Americans. With regards to the physical threat, a recent study by the Hamilton Project (2018) found that “immigrants to the U.S. are less likely than native-born citizens to be arrested, charged with a crime, convicted of a crime or felony, incarcerated, or institutionalized.”

With regard to the economic impact, immigration policy is often hotly debated with scant attention paid to the facts. In addition to the Hamilton Project, the following facts regarding U.S. immigrants also draws on a recent study by the Pew Research Center (2018):

  • The foreign-born share of the U.S. population has nearly returned to its late 19th century level (see Chart 1). Immigrants have always been a major part of America’s history. Immigration during the second half of the 19th century increased the foreign-born share to 14%. Starting around 1910, however, immigration fell sharply and the foreign-born share reached a low of 4.7% in 1970. The decline resulted from policy changes that limited immigration, e.g. the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the implementation of national origin quotas. Since then, immigration reforms, e.g. the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, and the 1986 amnesty program have boosted the number of foreign-born persons to 43.7 million which is 13.7% of the total population.

  • The regions of origins of the immigrant population has shifted dramatically (see Chart 2). In 1960, 84% of immigrants were born in Europe or Canada. Only 6% were from Mexico, 3.8% from South and East Asia, 3.5% from the rest of Latin America and 2.7% from other areas. The shares now differ dramatically. European and Canadian immigrants represent only a small share (13.2%). South and East Asians (26.9%), Mexicans (26.5%) and other Latin Americans (24.5%) each represent nearly a quarter of the immigrant population, followed by 8.9% who were born elsewhere.

  • There is a reversal of recent trends in immigrants to America (see Chart 3). Starting in 2010, more Asian immigrants than Hispanic immigrants have arrived annually. In the early 2000s, the number of newly arrived Hispanic immigrants greatly outnumbered newly-arrived Asian immigrants. The number of newly arrived Hispanic immigrants peaked in 2004 and then began to decline.

  • Education levels of immigrants have improved substantially (see Chart 4). The increases have been most dramatic among immigrants from Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Immigrants are twice as likely than children of native-born parents to have a doctorate.

  • High-skilled immigrants significantly increase innovation in the U.S. Researchers at the Hamilton Project found that “[a] one percentage point increase in the college-educated or advanced degree-holding immigrant shares of the U.S. population are estimated to produce a 12.3% or 27% increase in patenting per capita, respectively.”
  • The unauthorized immigrant population is shrinking (see Chart 5). The unauthorized immigrant population grew rapidly between 1990 and 2007, reaching a peak of 12.2 million. Since then, their numbers declined to 11.1 million. The big driver of the decline are immigrants from Mexico which fell from a peak of 6.9 million in 2007 to 5.8 million in 2014.

  • The vast majority of U.S. immigrants are here legally (see Chart 6). The vast bulk of the foreign-born population are lawful immigrants (44.1%) or lawful permanent residents (26.6%), or temporary lawful residents (4.8%). Only 24.5% of the foreign-born population is unauthorized.

  • There is essentially little support for the notion that immigrants are disproportionate users of social safety net programs (see Chart 7). With the exception of those with less than a high school diploma, all other education categories have a more positive fiscal impact than native-born Americans. This conclusion is based on examining only the contributions of first-generation immigrants. Researchers at the Hamilton Project found that children of immigrants are more likely to complete college and less likely to live in poverty than native-born Americans.


Nunn, Ryan, Jimmy O’Donnell and Jay Shambaugh. 2018. “A Dozen Facts about Immigration. ” Economic Facts, The Hamilton Project, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.

Radford, Jynnah and Abby Rudiman. 2018. “Facts on U.S. Immigrants.” Pew Research Center, Washington, DC.



This update was researched and written by Richard Hokenson, as of November 16 2018