National Review, November 9, 2023
In 1910, in the midst of a high immigration period known as the Great Wave, the Census Bureau found that 14.7 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born, close to the record of 14.8 percent set in 1890. The onset of World War I would soon lessen the flow, however, and restrictive legislation passed in the 1920s kept immigration low for the next four decades. The years 1890 and 1910 stood as the high-water marks of immigration in the U.S. — until now. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, the foreign-born share hit roughly 15 percent in August. Although there is some sampling error involved in that estimate, the U.S. is clearly at or near a new record.
Optimists may cite the Great Wave as proof that the U.S. can absorb the high levels of immigration that we are experiencing today. The problem with that analogy is that the Great Wave was followed by a long period of low immigration, giving newcomers time to integrate. By contrast, new population projections out today from the Census Bureau show no expected slowdown in immigration. The bureau projects that the foreign-born share will keep increasing throughout the century, setting new records year after year.
In the bureau’s main analysis, the foreign-born share will approach 20 percent by the end of the century, and in the alternative “high immigration” scenario it would rise to nearly 25 percent. As my colleague Steven Camarota notes, the acceleration of immigration under President Biden probably makes the “high” scenario the more likely one.
Absent a change in policy, our country’s absorptive capacity will soon be tested as it never has been before. Both sides of the immigration debate should at least acknowledge that we are entering uncharted territory, where appeals to history have limited value. After all, it is one thing to observe that the U.S. has weathered temporary periods of high immigration in the past. It is quite another to claim that record-breaking and permanent levels of immigration will be benign. With our country already divided along lines of culture and politics and heritage — witness, for example, the bitter clashes over Mideast policy — I fear that continued high immigration will worsen the division.