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Immigration to US Higher Than Expected - 2002-01-13


The United States has been called a nation of immigrants, and it continues to absorb over one million people from other countries every year. For an overview of the immigrant situation as America enters the year 2002, Oksana Dragan talked to demographer Jeffrey Passel of the Urban Institute in Washington.

The latest data on immigrants in the United States is becoming available from the 2000 census, and it is a surprise. "We demographers had underestimated the amount of immigration that had occurred in the United States over the last decade, said Jeffrey Passel of the Urban Institute. "The census shows about 31 million out of the 281 million people living in the United States are foreign-born, that's about 11 percent of the population. Most of the pre-census estimates would have put the number at about 28 or 29 million."

Mr. Passel says that since the United States has a good system of keeping track of legal immigration, most of the extra 3 million people who showed up in the census are probably illegal, or undocumented immigrants. There was, however, no surprise about the immigrants' countries of origin. "Mexico sends by far the largest number of immigrants, both legal immigrants and undocumented immigrants," said Mr. Passel, who says almost 30 percent of immigrants come from Mexico. "About a quarter of the immigrants come from other parts of Latin America - the Caribbean, Central America, South America. About a quarter of the immigrants come from Asia, with the largest numbers from China and India and Southeast Asia. Those are the principal sources of the new immigrants."

Many newcomers continue to gravitate toward California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey - the six states that have traditionally received the most immigrants. However, the immigrant population is growing most rapidly in a totally different region of the country.

"A band of states kind of stretching across the middle of the country. Nevada and Arizona had rapid growth, but states like Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Arkansas - states that we don't normally associate with immigrants - and then moving eastward [into] Tennessee, Indiana, North Carolina, Georgia; those states had actually the most rapid growth rates in their immigrant populations," explains the Urban Institute demographer.

Mr. Passel says immigrants were drawn to these states because they offer new employment opportunities. "Particularly low-skilled jobs that require little in the way of education, such as chicken processing plants, meat packing, light manufacturing, as well as jobs in hotels and restaurants, which tend to be everywhere."

However, demographer Jeffrey Passel believes that the situation will be different for immigrants coming to the United States in 2002.

"I think some things have changed over the last year," he said. "In the 1990s, getting a job wasn't a problem. Unemployment was very low. I think immigrants now are probably faced with greater difficulties finding stable employment, putting together the kind of employment that will provide a decent income for a family."

Coupled with that, the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 limited access, even for legal immigrants, to the social safety net, including welfare, Medicaid, and food stamps, for people facing difficult economic situations.

"The new places immigrants have settled creates kind of a double whammy, if you will, in that by and large most of these states are not ones that have been particularly generous in setting up programs for immigrants," explained Mr. Passel. "As the economy gets more difficult immigrants in those places may face increasing unemployment and lack of access to any safety net to tide them over."

As a result, Jeffrey Passel predicts a decrease in the number of illegal immigrants coming into the country. "A lot of the undocumented immigrants worked in hotels, in restaurants, in some of these manufacturing concerns, meat-packing, a lot of different areas where the opportunities just aren't there anymore."

There is also the aftereffect of the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. "One of the things that we have not heard widely is a cry to cut back on the numbers of legal immigrants," said Mr. Passel. "There have been some people saying that we should cut back on some of the temporary categories, and secondarily that we should look more carefully at the immigrants we do admit, and I think that's how we're going to see the impact of September 11 that there's going to be much greater scrutiny of the foreign-born people that come into the country, both immigrants as well as the people admitted temporarily."

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