Misreadings Of Statistical Data Perpetuate Harmful Myths About Immigration

This past January, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala) and Representative Dave Brat (R-Va) penned a letter to their Republican colleagues calling for decisive action to curb "out of control immigration" in the U.S. Their letter was preceded by a full-page ad published in an October 2015 issue of the Roll Call, in which Sessions and Brat cited historical immigration data to argue that since 1970, "We've had vastly more immigration than ever before."

Statements like these are appealing for their simplicity but damaging for precisely the same reason. Misreadings of statistical data perpetuate harmful myths about immigration that fuel xenophobia and prompt reactionary policies like Donald Trump's proposed border wall. A measured reading of immigration data reveals that, while the number of foreign-born U.S. residents has indeed increased in recent years, it has also remained on par with increases in the U.S. population as a whole. In short, immigration is by no means "out of control."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the U.S. immigrant population stood at more than 42.4 million, or 13.3% of the total U.S. population of 318.9 million, in 2014. While the foreign-born population did increase by 1 million, or 2.5%, between 2013 and 2014, the per capita figure (percentage of population as a whole) of 13.3% is in line with previous statistics. As Sessions and Brat report, and the Migration Policy Institute confirms, per capita immigration reached its historical peak in 1890, when 14.8% of the U.S. population was foreign born. Due to restrictive immigration legislation, the Great Depression, and World War II, the percentage of foreign-born residents steadily dropped to an all-time low of 4.7% in 1970. Since then, mainly as a result of Congressional abolition of national-origin admission quotas in 1965, the share of immigrants has indeed increased to 13.3% as mentioned above. The fact remains that, historically, the percentage of foreign-born individuals residing in the U.S. has never risen above 15%, and it currently stands below that mark.

Similar to the figures for immigration as a whole, the data on unauthorized immigration shows stability rather than volatility. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of unauthorized immigrants peaked in 2007 at 12.2 million, or 4% of the U.S. population. In 2014, 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants, or 3.5% of the nation's population, resided in the U.S.; this population has remained essentially stable for five years.

When examining immigration data, it is important to keep the per capita figure in mind so as not to lose sight of the overall picture. At the National Review Forum on May 1, 2015, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla) stated, "We have a legal immigration system in America that accepts 1 million people a year, legally. No other country in the world even comes close to that." Considering only the raw number of green cards issued by the U.S., Rubio is correct; however, his implication that the U.S. is vastly outpacing other countries on immigration must be addressed in the context of national populations. Using standardized data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Pulitzer Prize-winning website Politifact determined that the U.S. placed 19th of 24 countries in terms of per capita immigration. In other words, the U.S. accepts more new permanent immigrants than any other nation in absolute terms, but relative to population, the U.S. takes in less than half of the OECD average per capita.

Immigration has been the key driver of population growth and national racial and ethnic change since 1965, and it will continue to be a central force in expanding and shaping the U.S. population over the next 50 years. The Pew Research Center projects that foreign-born individuals will make up a record 18% of the U.S. population in 2065, and immigrants and their children will represent 36% of the U.S. population at that time. These figures equal or surpass peak levels last seen around the turn of the 20th century. Sessions and Brat cite these estimates as evidence of their alarmist claim that immigration is out of control. However, a more balanced analysis of the data concludes that, although it has increased markedly from its all-time low in 1970, immigration remains within reasonable limits.

As immigration continues to expand, levelheaded analysis must govern policy decisions to ensure a rational approach to U.S. population growth and demographic change.