Over the last century, legal immigrants to the United States—people admitted as legal permanent residents—have accounted for about one-fifth of the total population increase. Over 45 million people entered the U.S. as documented immigrants between 1910 and 2006 (Table 1), and according to the U.S. Census, the country’s population grew from 92 million in 1910 to 300 million in 2006. The total legal immigrant population thus accounted for almost 22 percent of this increase. These figures show the impact over ten decades. From decade to decade during the century, however, the flow of immigrants grew or declined, with peaks occurring in the period 1910 to 1919 and over the last sixteen years.
The mix of countries of origin for immigrants has shifted over the century. In the early years of the twentieth century most immigrants to the United States came from Europe; by the beginning of the twenty-first century they arrived from the countries of the Western Hemisphere and Asia.
In addition to those admitted as legal immigrants, people have entered the country with the legal status of refugees or been awarded asylum after arriving here (Tables 2 and 3). Others have been admitted to the country on non-immigrant, temporary visas, as tourists, diplomats, students and temporary workers (Table 4).
The Department of Homeland Security is the primary source for the most reliable and detailed figures assembled on immigration to the United States. The figures were previously maintained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In 2003, the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) incorporated the various functions of INS, including the maintenance of data on immigration. In general, separate figures on refugees and asylees have been available only since 1981.
The flow of documented immigrants to the U.S. over the last century has been steady but with ebbs in certain decades. In recent decades it has been increasing in actual numbers, but the figures show that the heaviest influx—as a percentage of the U.S. total population—occurred in the decade 1910 to 1919. During these ten years, 6.3 million people entered the U.S. as immigrants (Table 1). According to U.S. Census records, the total population of the country in 1910 was 92 million; in 1920, it was 106 million. The number of immigrants represented 45 percent of the total population increase over the decade—a very high figure.A vast majority—nearly five million—of the immigrants during this period came from Europe. The decade encompassed both World War I and the Russian Revolution. Over one million people came from Russia; over one million from Italy; and over one million from Austria-Hungary.
Another one million immigrants entered the U.S. from the countries of the Western Hemisphere, with over 700,000 coming from Canada. Only 185,000 came from Mexico.
In absolute numbers, the immigrant flow did not again approach the level of the years 1910–1919 until the 1980s. Immigration slowed from 1920 through 1979—dramatically so from 1930 to 1949, despite the upheavals of the Second World War.
By the decade 1980–1989, the mix of countries of origin had changed. Over this period, the largest number of immigrants came from Asia—2.4 million—and the countries of the Western Hemisphere—2.7 million. Fewer than 700,000 people came from Europe. Mexico was the origin country for the largest number—over 1 million. Other countries from which many people came during that period were the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, India, and the Dominican Republic.
Over the decade 1990–1999, immigration again increased substantially, with nearly 10 million people entering the U.S. as documented immigrants. This represented an increase of 57 percent over the previous decade. The total number of immigrants represented over 30 percent of the growth in population during the decade. (As stated earlier, immigration accounted for 45 percent of the total population increase from 1910 through 1919.)
The mix of countries of origin continued to shift over this period, with over 50 percent of all immigrants from 1990–1999 coming from countries in the Western Hemisphere—nearly 2.8 million from Mexico—more than double the number in the previous decade.From 2000 to 2006, an additional 7 million immigrants entered the U.S.—the majority continuing to come from the Western Hemisphere and Asia.
Refugees and Asylees
While many immigrants, at all periods, have been trying to flee untenable political situations, only since 1980 have political refugees admitted to the United States and those granted asylum had statutory status separate from others admitted to the country. (The main distinction between refugees and those seeking asylum is that refugees apply for admission while still outside the country and asylees apply when they enter or at some point afterward.) In comparison to the total number of immigrants, the number of those admitted under these categories has been relatively low. From 1997 through 2006 only 574,000 refugees arrived in the country; about 181,000 people were granted political asylum. Tables 2 and 3 show that these individuals have arrived from all over the world. At various points over the decade, people fled from countries on all continents. The countries of Oceania (Australia, New Zealand and some smaller Pacific island nations) were the exception.
More complete tables for the figures discussed in the preceding article are available at http://justice.uaa.alaska.edu/ forum/24/4winter2008/e_immigrationtables.html.