The New Reality of U.S. Immigration

December 30, 2014 | By Neil Howe

This editorial originally appeared in Forbes.

The $1.1 trillion spending bill the Senate passed this month will fund most of the federal government through September 2015—with the notable exception of the Department of Homeland Security, whose funding expires in February. This sets up a fight with President Obama over his recent executive order on immigration—an order that itself was met, unsurprisingly, with Democratic rallying and Republican outrage. This battle largely feels like a rehashing of the same old culture-wars story we’ve heard for the past two decades. But this time, it really is different. The broader context of the debate has changed. In recent years, immigration trends have reversed direction—and the composition of immigrants is shifting in ways that most voters aren’t aware of.

Obama’s executive order is expected to affect 5.0 of the 11.4 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. It will apply to 4 million undocumented parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, provided that the parents have lived here for at least five years. This rollout also expands the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to children who were brought to the United States by their parents before January 2010. The policy also expands visas for those who pursue STEM degrees, modifies federal immigrant detention procedures, and strengthens border security.

The response has been swift and predictable. Supporters have hailed this move as a step in the right direction, saying that legalizing the undocumented upholds the American ideal of upward mobility. Others believe that these measures will promote economic growth and expand tax revenue. (According to one study, Obama’s reforms could result in $45 billion in additional payroll tax revenue over the next five years.) Detractors, meanwhile, are furious, arguing that this order amounts to amnesty and is an insult to legal immigrants. Seventeen states have already filed a lawsuit against the President for violating the Constitution’s Take Care Clause.

Both sides in this heated debate are arguing as if immigration to the United States is steeply rising. Yet in fact, since the Great Recession, immigration has been declining. The number of persons obtaining legal permanent resident status peaked in 2006 at 1.3 million—which has since fallen to just under 1.0 million in 2013.

As for net unauthorized immigration, which typically averaged a million persons a year in the two decades prior to the Great Recession, this too has fallen dramatically—all the way to near-zero in 2010 and 2011. Indeed, the number of unauthorized immigrants residing in the United States actually declined from 2007 to 2013 (from 12.2 million to 11.3 million). This shrinkage was primarily the result of large net outflows back to Mexico. In response to “reverse” Mexican migration, Pew senior demographer Jeffrey Passel remarked: “We really haven’t seen anything like this in the last 30 or 40 years.”

This decline first became apparent in 2008. For several years, observers attributed it to temporary factors like the bad economy. The common assumption was that the Great Recession would temporarily slow immigration, but when the economy recovered, immigration would rebound. A variety of factors converged to support this hypothesis. The U.S. housing market collapse eliminated construction jobs previously dominated by Mexican immigrants. And Mexico’s economy recovered faster than the United States’s, encouraging many to stay in or return to Mexico.

The drop-off was also exacerbated by increased deportations. Many assumed heightened penalties deterred potential border crossers. Under the Obama administration, U.S. officials deported a record 400,000 immigrants each year from 2009 to 2012.

But now the economy has improved, and we’re still seeing this decline. So what’s going on? Some are now pointing to long-term drivers—like falling fertility rates in Mexico and Latin America. In the early ‘60s, the average Mexican and Latin American woman was expected to have 6.8 and 6.0 children, respectively. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, this number dropped to approximately 3.5 children.  And today, this number is closer to 2.3.

This steady decline illustrates a broader narrative: Since there were fewer people born in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there are simply fewer people of migratory age (15 to 39 years old) today. Not only is it easier for parents to provide for these smaller families, but their children are also less inclined to relocate to another country to make a living. The most telling sign of this development is the 2012 Census projections. The adjustments from the 2008 report reflect assumptions of lower fertility and decreased levels of net immigration.

To some extent, this decline has been offset by increased migration from other regions, particularly Asia and Africa. Since 2010, Asian immigrants continue to surpass Hispanics as the largest ethnic share of total immigration into the United States, both legal and unauthorized. And the African immigrant population, while still small, has doubled each decade since 1970.

Number of Persons Obtaining Legal Permanent Resident Status in the United States, by Region of Birth (2004-2013)

Number of Persons Obtaining Legal Permanent Resident Status in the United States, by Region of Birth (2004-2013)

Not only are these populations growing quickly, they are also standing out from other foreign-born populations in the United States. For example, Asians are more likely to become naturalized citizens than their foreign-born peers. And while Asians and Africans tend to have higher levels of educational attainment than foreign-born immigrants from other nations, African immigrants are more likely to have obtained a bachelor’s degree than native-born Americans. Rising Asian and African immigration explain why states further from the Mexican border are starting to see a sharp increase in unauthorized immigrants—who are more likely to have entered the country legitimately and overstayed their visas as opposed to entering illegally.

The reality of today’s immigrant population may serve to change the politics of migration. Thus far, Millennials already have a smaller immigrant population than Generation X. If this trend continues, we can expect Homelanders to have an even smaller immigrant population. These generations may also witness a shift in the political landscape as immigration debates subside in the Southwest and intensify along the East Coast. And further down the road, immigration may even become a less politically contentious issue—cooling the flames under America’s melting pot.