Immigration in the United States

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe patterns and issues surrounding immigration to the United States

Changes in U.S. Immigration Patterns and Attitudes

Worldwide patterns of migration have changed, though the United States remains the most popular destination. In 2016, there were over 43.7 million immigrants living in the United States, constituting 13.5% of the population. This is more than four times the number of the 9.7 million immigrants in the United States in 1960.[1] From 1990 to 2013, the number of migrants living in the United States increased from one in six to one in five (The Pew Research Center 2013). Overall, in 2013 the United States was home to about 46 million foreign-born people, while only about 3 million U.S. citizens lived abroad. Of foreign-born citizens emigrating to the United States, over 50 percent originated in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 26.7 percent come from South or East Asia.[2]

Main Source Countries/Regions of Immigrants to the United States between 1960 and 2015. The percentage of those from South or East Asia steadily rises, as does immigration from Mexico, which both share similarly large percentages. Next are those from Europe and Canada, then the Caribbean, Central America, South America, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Figure 1. In 2015, there were 12.1 million immigrants to the United States from South or East Asia, 11.6 million from Mexico, and 5.6 million from Canada or Europe. Note how these percentages have changed in recent years.

While there are more foreign-born people residing in the United States legally (76% of immigrants in 2016), about 10.7 million are unauthorized immigrants. This is a 13% decline from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007. This decline is the result of less immigration from Mexico, even with rising immigration from other Central American countries. A growing number of unauthorized immigrants entered the country legally and are now considered illegal due to overstaying their visas.[3]

Most citizens agree that our national immigration policies are in need of major adjustment—almost three-quarters of those in a recent national survey believed illegal immigrants should have a path to citizenship provided they meet other requirements, such as speaking English or paying restitution for the time they spent in the country illegally. Interestingly, 55 percent of those surveyed who identified as Hispanic think a pathway to citizenship is of secondary importance to provisions for living legally in the United States without the threat of deportation (The Pew Research Center 2013). Even more recently, partisan politics have people in the United States deeply divided about the importance of addressing illegal immigration, particularly along the U.S. Southern border with Mexico. President Donald Trump was elected in 2016 with the promise to build a wall along the border, but despite efforts to fund the building of the wall (and a government shutdown as the result of it), there are no immediate plans to construct a wall along the entire border, instead money has been designated to repair and add particular sections to existing border walls and fences.

Managing Refugees and Asylum-Seekers in the Modern World

In 2013, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide exceeded 50 million people for the first time since the end of World War II. Half these people were children. A refugee is defined as an individual who has been forced to leave his or her country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster, while asylum-seekers are those whose claim to refugee status has not been validated. Asylum has two basic requirements. First, an asylum applicant must establish that he or she fears persecution in their home country. Second, the applicant must prove that he or she would be persecuted on account of one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group. An internally displaced person, on the other hand, is neither a refugee nor an asylum-seeker. Displaced persons have fled their homes while remaining inside their country’s borders. The number of displaced persons and refugees who fall under the jurisdiction of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2015 was 57.9 million, up from 21 million in 2007.

The war in Syria caused most of the 2013 increase, forcing 2.5 million people to seek refugee status while internally displacing an additional 6.5 million. Violence in Central African Republic and South Sudan also contributed a large number of people to the total (The United Nations Refugee Agency 2014). Refugees need help in the form of food, water, shelter, and medical care, which has worldwide implications for nations contributing foreign aid, the nations hosting the refugees, and the non-government organizations (NGOs) working with individuals and groups on site (The United Nations Refugee Agency 2014).

World refugee resettlement falls by tens of thousands in 2017 as global refugee population rises by millions. The top graph shows the number of refugees resettled worldwide in thousands from 1982 to 2017. It shows that In 1982, it was at around 140 thousand, then rose and fell to 50 thousand in 2002, rose again to 189 thousand in 2016, and then fell to 103 thousand in 2017. The bottom graph shows the number of refugees worldwide, in millions. In 1982 it was at 10 million, then rose to 17 million in 1992, fell to 10 million in 2005, and rose again to 19.9 million in 2017.
Figure 2. A global concern is the falling rates of refugee resettlement, yet the rising number of refugees.

The United States recognizes the right of asylum for individuals as specified by international and federal law. A specified number of legally defined refugees who either apply for asylum from inside the U.S. or apply for refugee status from outside the U.S., are admitted annually. Refugees compose about one-tenth of the total annual immigration to the United States, though some large refugee populations are very prominent. Since World War II, more refugees have found homes in the U.S. than any other nation and more than two million refugees have arrived in the U.S. since 1980. This number is declining, however, as 2017 marked the first year that the U.S. resettled fewer refugees than the rest of the world. In 2017, the U.S. resettled about 33,000 refugees, which is a dramatic decrease from the 97,000 resettled in the United States in 2016. Other countries are also limiting the number of refugee resettlements, which is especially problematic since the number of refugees is on the rise.[4]

Visit this factsheet from the National Immigration Forum to learn more about the process of seeking asylum.

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those whose claim to refugee status have not been validated
internally displaced person:
someone who fled his or her home while remaining inside the country’s borders
an individual who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster

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  1. Radford, Jynnah and Abby Budiman (September 2018). Facts on U.S. Immigrants, 2016 Statistical portrait of the foreign-born population in the United States. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from
  2. Snapshot of U.S. Immigration 2019 (March 2019. National Conference of State Legislatures. Retrieved from
  3. Gramlich, John (January 2019). How Americans see illegal immigration, the border wall and political compromise. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from
  4. Connor, Phillip and Jens Manuel Krogstad (July 2018). For the first time, U.S. resettled fewer refugees than the rest of the world. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from


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