The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) released last week shows 46.2 million foreign-born residents — nearly 900,000 more than in 2021. However, the 2022 ACS survey only reflects the population through July 2022 and does not fully capture the ongoing border surge. Moreover, the bureau does try to incorporate illegal immigrants into the survey, but as we have discussed in prior analyses, in our view the bureau is almost certainly underestimating immigration, especially due to the ongoing border crisis.1 This includes the 2.6 million illegal immigrants released into the country since 2021 and the 1.5 million “got-aways” at the border — individuals observed entering but not stopped.2 Therefore, we think it likely that the foreign-born estimate in the ACS for July 2022 is too low. At the very least it is out of date.
The 2023 Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS ASEC), which was released at the same time as the ACS, reflects the population in March of this year and shows 48.8 million foreign-born residents. Moreover, the monthly Current Public Survey (CPS), also collected by the Census Bureau, shows 49.5 million foreign-born residents in August 2023.3 The "foreign-born" or "immigrant" population in Census Bureau surveys is supposed to include all those who were not U.S. citizens at birth — both legal and illegal immigrants.4
About the size and growth of the foreign-born population:
- The 2022 American Community Survey (ACS), which reflects the population in July 2022, shows 46.2 million foreign-born residents (±150,000) living in the U.S. This is the largest foreign-born population the ACS has ever shown and an increase of nearly 900,000 over the 2021 ACS.5
- The 2023 Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS ASEC), which was also released last week, reflects the population in March of this year and shows 48.8 million foreign-born residents (±550,000). (Table A-1 in the Census Bureau’s health insurance report)
- Analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies of the public-use monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) for August 2023 shows 49.5 million foreign-born residents (±550,000).
- Although the 2022 ACS is somewhat out of date, the survey’s large size makes it possible to measure growth by individual immigrant-sending countries. The largest numerical increases in the last year were for immigrants from Afghanistan, up 284,000; India, up 130,000; Venezuela, up 122,000; China, up 79,000; Honduras, up 76,000; Colombia, up 73,000; Brazil, up 49,000; Canada, up 43,000; and Guatemala, up 42,000. (Table 1)
- The largest percentage increases from 2021 to 2022 by country were for Afghanistan, up 229 percent; Venezuela, up 22 percent; Honduras, Nepal, and Kenya, each up 10 percent; Ghana, Brazil, and Colombia, each up 9 percent; and Ethiopia and Ecuador, both up 8 percent. (Table 1)
- The large size of the ACS also makes it possible to measure growth in the foreign-born population by state. The largest numerical increases in the past year in immigrant populations were in Florida, up 209,000; Georgia, up 85,000; Texas, up 77,000; Maryland, up 51,000; North Carolina and Arizona, both up 47,000; New Jersey, up 46,000; Washington State, up 45,000; and Pennsylvania, up 40,000. (Table 2)
- The states with the largest percentage increases from 2021 to 2022 were West Virginia, up 16 percent; North Dakota, up 13 percent; Iowa, up 10 percent; Indiana and Arkansas, each up 9 percent; Alabama and Georgia, each up 8 percent; Montana, up 7 percent; and Tennessee and New Hampshire, each up 6 percent. (Table 2)
Figure 1. Total Foreign-Born Population 2011 to 2023 Based on Three Census Bureau Surveys.
The ACS used to produce higher estimates than the CPS ASEC, but that has generally not been the case since 2018. The CPS ASEC and monthly CPS also show very dramatic growth since 2021.
Source: Data for the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS ASEC) and monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) are from the public-use files.
* In 2020, all Census Bureau surveys became more challenging to collect because of Covid-19. The bureau published only limited ACS data that year because it did not have confidence in the data.
Figure 2. The foreign-born population in the monthly Current Population Survey shows fluctuations, but since President Biden won it has grown by an unprecedented 4.8 million. (in millions)
Source: Public-use files of the Current Population Survey.
1 The ACS, and all Census Bureau surveys, are weighted in part based on the bureau’s population estimates of the U.S.-born by characteristics such as age, race, and sex. If their estimate of migration used to create the population estimates is too low then it will result in estimates of the foreign-born in the surveys weighted using the population estimates that are too low. This is not likely to make an enormous difference, unless the migrants are disproportionally from some racial/ethnic groups, which is the case. As we have discussed in our prior analyses, the methodology used by the Census Bureau is not really designed to fully capture a sudden surge in illegal immigration of the kind the country has been experiencing. The bureau has struggled with estimating net international migration for years, from long before the surge, which is understandable given the difficulty in measuring emigration and illegal immigration in particular. In fact, when the Census Bureau issued its 2022 population estimates it went back to 2010 and found that its estimates of migration from 2010 to 2021 were too low for every year. The current unprecedented situation at the border only adds to the challenge of estimating migration into the country. See Anthony Knapp and Tiangeng Lu, “Net Migration Between the United States and Abroad in 2022 Reaches Highest Level Since 2017”, U.S. Census Bureau, December 2022. See our prior reports that deal with the issue of the Census Bureau’s estimates of net migration: Steven A. Camarota and Karen Zeigler, “Understanding the New 2021 Population Estimates: Pandemic caused temporary reduction in population growth, which was already slowing”, February 2022, Center for Immigration Studies; and Steven A. Camarota and Karen Zeigler “Estimating the Impact of Immigration on U.S. Population Growth, March 2023, Center for Immigration Studies”.
2 Former immigration judge and Resident Fellow in Law and Policy at the Center for Immigration Studies Andrew Arthur has estimated the number of inadmissible aliens released by DHS based on documents released to comply with a disclosure order in Texas v. Biden (Northern District of Texas, Amarillo Division, Case No. 2:21-cv-00067-Z) as well as limited information at the CBP “Custody and Transfer Statistics” webpage and ICE’s “Detention Management” webpage. For a detailed discussion on the number of inadmissible aliens released into the United States based on the available information, see Andrew Arthur, “It’s No Secret — Biden’s Hiding Bad Border Numbers”, Center for Immigration Studies blog, September 1, 2023. The number of got-aways in the last three fiscal years comes from a variety of sources: see Table 2b in Department of Homeland Security Border Security Metrics Report: 2022”, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, July 3, 2023. Also see “Border officials count 599,000 'gotaway' migrants in Fiscal Year 2022”, Fox News, October 2, 2022. Also see the transcript of the press briefing by White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, May 11, 2023.
3 The ACS, CPS ASEC, and the monthly CPS are all collected by the Census Bureau and generally should produce similar estimates of the foreign-born population. In a prior report, we looked at long-term trends in the foreign-born population in the ACS compared to the CPS ASEC and discussed how the ACS typically produces higher estimates, but more recently the CPS ASEC has shown a larger immigrant population. (The CPS is not really a separate survey from the CPS ASEC as the latter is basically the monthly CPS with supplemental questions and a larger sample due to oversampling minorities.) When it comes to the foreign-born, estimates from the survey are not always the same, though they should be reasonably close. The surveys are released on different schedules. Typically, this does not matter too much. But the rapidly changing immigration situation means that the most up-to-date data is more likely to better capture what has been happening at the border. While the large size of the ACS makes it ideal for studying the foreign-born, it only reflects the population in July of each year and is not released until more than a year later. The CPS ASEC is smaller than the ACS, but it’s oversample of minorities makes it ideal for studying the foreign-born. However, it is designed to reflect the population in March of each year and is not released for six months. The monthly CPS is the smallest of the surveys, though it still surveys over 60,000 households, and it is released every month, providing the most up-to-date information. The fact that the CPS ASEC is often producing higher estimates than the ACS (except in 2021) is puzzling because the CPS ASEC does not include the roughly 230,000 foreign-born individuals in institutions, while the ACS does include this population. Further, the CPS ASEC reflects the population in March while the ACS reflects the population in July. When the foreign-born population is growing as it now, a July-based number should always be somewhat larger than a March-based number.
Figure 1 reports the size of the foreign-born population based on the ACS, CPS ASEC, and the August monthly CPS from 2011 to 2023.
4 The Census Bureau website states “unauthorized migrants are implicitly included in the Census Bureau estimates of the total foreign-born population.” See “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Foreign Born”. Also, the Bureau of Labor Statistics acknowledges the inclusion of illegal immigrants (whom they refer to as “undocumented immigrants”) in the monthly CPS used in its Employment Situation Reports each month.
5 The margin of error for the ACS comes directly from data.census.gov. The margin of error for the CPS ASEC is calculated using the parameter estimates provided by the Census Bureau, which are designed to create unbiased standard errors that address the survey’s complex design. We use the same parameters to calculate the margin of error in the monthly CPS. However, it should be noted that the bureau does not provide specific parameters for the foreign born in the monthly CPS, and so we use those provided for the CPS ASEC.