United States does not permit more immigrants than rest of the world combined: Report

At the House hearing at which I testified, Congressman Chip Roy (R‑TX) asked, “How many people immigrate to other countries each year?” Center for Immigration Studies’ Robert Law—former chief of the Office of Policy and Strategy for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services—told him that the United States grants more green cards than “the rest of the world combined.” Fortunately, I was able to respond and explain that this is wildly inaccurate. The United States definitely does not permit more immigration than the rest of the world combined, and it is not close.

At the time, I explained that at least ten times more immigrants went to other countries than went to the United States during the most recent 5‑year period available, but new numbers from the United Nations (UN) show that even this figure was too generous to the United States. From July 2019 to July 2020, the UN estimates that the United States accounted for none of the growth in the global immigrant population: 0 percent of the net increase of 9 million immigrants worldwide were immigrants in the United States in 2020. According to the UN estimates (using Census Bureau data), the U.S. immigrant population stopped growing altogether from July 2019 to July 2020.

Figure 1 shows that in the 1990s, the U.S. did account for the majority of the growth in the world immigrant population (defined, for consistency across countries, as people living outside their birth country). From 1990 to 1995, nearly two‐​thirds (63 percent) of the growth in the global immigrant population came from U.S. immigrant population growth. From 1995 to 2000, it was 52 percent. It then dropped to a quarter from 2000 to 2005. By 2015 to 2020, it was down to 7.5 percent. But from 2019 to 2020, the United States stopped being a net contributor to world immigrant population growth.

Figure 1 David J. Bier, Cato Institute article July 13, 2022.
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Figure 2 shows the net increase in immigrants worldwide and the net increase in immigrants in the United States during each period since 1990. The increase in immigration outside of the United States was the main contributor to the decline in the U.S. share of global immigration. However, U.S. immigrant population growth also declined in absolute terms from a high of nearly 6.4 million from 1995 to 2000 down to 2.5 million from 2015 to 2020 (and a negative roughly 30,000 from 2019 to 2020).

Figure 2 David J. Bier, Cato Institute article, July 13, 2022

The UN uses a slightly different definition of an “immigrant” than the U.S. Census Bureau. In order to allow for comparisons between countries that have different citizenship rules, the UN includes all people born outside of the country, even though some of those people may receive citizenship at birth, either by being born citizen parents or in an overseas territory. It also treats people born in territories as immigrants if they move to a home country (and vice versa). But these differences do not change the overall picture: accounting for them increases the U.S. share of global immigrant population growth by only about a half a percentage point.

It is also true that the UN data only measure the net increase in the immigrant population—that is, inflows minus outflows—not just the gross inflow of immigrants to the United States or worldwide. The UN does not have comprehensive data on flows of immigrants, but the Organisation for Economic Co‐​operation and Development (OECD) does have data on flows for 37 countries from 2016 to 2019. These data show that the United States accounted for just 12 percent of the immigration flow among those countries in 2019, and that is without data for more than 150 countries including the Gulf States which lead the world in foreign‐​born share of their populations.

Robert Law did specify that he was talking specifically about permanent residents. But even if we limit this analysis, the United States does not come close to a majority of the flow of legal permanent residents worldwide. In fact, in 2020, U.S. immigrants accounted for just 14 percent of immigrants becoming permanent residents in just the OECD—down from 27 percent in 2009. At no point during this time did the U.S. share ever approach a majority of all permanent residents. Again, this dataset leaves out more than 150 other countries. The U.S. share of total legal permanent immigrants is almost certainly well below 10 percent worldwide.

Figure 3 David J. Bier, Cato Institute article July 13, 2022

The new data from the UN shows that the United States does not permit more immigration than the rest of the world combined. Indeed, the United States ranks low in terms of net immigration and foreign‐​born share of the population compared to other wealthy countries, and it is losing the race for talent around the world. Other countries are increasing immigration, and the United States has gone the opposite direction. Congress and the administration need to seize the opportunity to change this dynamic.

(This article first appeared on Cato.org july 13, 2022)

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