By on 3.23.22 in Migration

In 2015, we published a three part series examining immigration trends in the U.S. and in North Carolina. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be updating that series, with analysis of how COVID-19 and recent immigration laws have affected international migration in the U.S. and in North Carolina.

The U.S. has been a popular destination for immigrants from across the globe since the 1820s. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s records, approximately 86 million immigrants received lawful permanent residency between 1820 and 2019. The graph below displays the number of immigrants categorized by their continent of origin for each decade from the 1820s to the 2010s.

Three immigration waves are notable from the chart. The first wave occurred between 1840 and 1889, when the U.S. received 14.3 million immigrants mostly from Europe. The second wave occurred between 1890 and 1919 with 18.2 million immigrants, the majority also from Europe. The third wave began in 1960 and is still ongoing, with more than 40 million immigrants arriving in the U.S., primarily from South America and Asia. Over the past 20 years, the number of immigrants from Africa has also been noticeably increasing: Pew Research Center reported that Black African immigrants more than tripled between 2000 and 2019, rising from 600,000 to 2 million.

The individual countries that experienced the largest migrations – those with more than one million immigrants to the U.S. in a 10-year increment since 1820 – include Austria-Hungary, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Russia, and Mexico. The detailed reflections of the immigration waves for these countries are displayed in the graph below.

In the first wave (between 1840 and 1889), the majority of immigrants were from Germany and Ireland; in the second wave (between 1890 and 1919), immigrants from Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Russia contributed to the especially large influx into the U.S.

Immigration shifts have occurred for many reasons, including  changes in U.S. immigration and refugee laws. Starting in 1917, a series of restrictive immigration laws were passed in the U.S. The Immigration Act of 1924, otherwise known as the Johnson-Reed Act, established quotas for new immigration visas based on national origins. Until it was repealed, the Act severely restricted who could enter the U.S., essentially cut off immigrants from Asia, and favored immigrants from northern and Western Europe.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 eliminated the quotas and expanded the number of visas. This resulted in an influx of new immigrants from many more countries of origin. Though Mexico has sent the most immigrants since 1960, we see a much greater variety of regions of birth origin, as seen in data from the Migration Policy Institute tracking U.S. Immigration Population by World Region of Birth, over the past 60 years.

The number of immigrants from Mexico rose significantly after 1970 and peaked between the years 1990 and 1999. By 2007, there were 12.8 million Mexican immigrants in the United States.  However, as Pew Research notes in a 2015 analysis, we’ve seen both a drop in the number of Mexican immigrants coming to the U.S. and an increase in the number of Mexicans leaving the U.S. for Mexico. Though Mexico still remains the top origin country of immigrants in the U.S., Pew notes that China and India both sent more immigrants into the U.S. in 2018 than Mexico – and more Asian immigrants than Hispanic immigrants have arrived in the U.S. for more years since 2009.

The reasons for these changes are complex: changes in immigration laws, the Great Recession, demographic and economic changes in Mexico, and family reunification in Mexico have all been cited as reasons for a smaller number of Mexican immigrants crossing the border.

How did the pandemic impact immigration?

In recent years, we have seen slowing growth across the entire immigrant population. Data from the Migration Policy Institute shows that the increase from 2017 to 2018 was much lower than the previous year, and that growth remained flat from 2018 to 2019.  This continued into the pandemic – the U.S. Census Bureau noted that the net international migration from 2020 to 2021 was the lowest it had been in decades, due to border closures and a reduction in the number of green cards given out to workers.

With an aging population, generally declining fertility, and increased mortality rates due to the pandemic, future population growth of the United States is increasingly dependent on continued immigration. In recent months, both the head of the Richmond Federal Reserve and the head of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve have spoken out about the need for more immigrants to ease the labor shortage. An analysis by researchers at the University of California-Davis indicates that there are about 2 million fewer working-age immigrants than there would have been had trends pre-2020 continued.

What does this mean for North Carolina?

Between 2010 and 2020, about 70% of North Carolina's population growth was from net migration, meaning more people moving here than moving away. About one-quarter of these net gains from migration--18% of all North Carolina's population growth--was from international migration. Between 2020 and 2021, North Carolina experienced natural decrease (more deaths than births) for the first time; net migration was the only source of growth over the year. At the same time, net international migration fell significantly.

Due to population aging and lower fertility rates, net migration is expected to be the primary (and potentially only) source of growth for North Carolina. Sustained lower rates of immigration to the United States would likely translate to lower than expected population growth in North Carolina in the coming decade.

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