Steven A. Camarota is the director of research and Karen Zeigler is a demographer at the Center.
The Census Bureau’s monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) shows that the total foreign-born or immigrant population (legal and illegal) in the U.S. hit 47.9 million in September 2022 — a record high in American history — and an increase of 2.9 million since January 2021. At 14.6 percent, the immigrant share of the U.S. population is now just slightly below the all-time highs reached in 1890 and 1910. If present trends continue, the foreign-born share will surpass the all-time highs reached more than a century ago next year. The CPS data is important because neither the record number of border encounters or figures for new legal immigrants actually measures the number of immigrants living in the country, which is what ultimately determines immigration’s impact on American society.
There is a good deal of variation month-to-month in the data, but the 2.9 million increase in the foreign-born population since President Biden took office is both very large and statistically significant. The dramatic growth is so striking because, for the foreign-born population to grow at all, new arrivals must exceed both return-migration and deaths, as all births to immigrants in the U.S., by definition, add only to the native-born population.
Among our findings:
- The 47.9 million foreign-born residents (legal and illegal) in September 2022 is the largest number ever recorded in any U.S. government survey or census; and 2.9 million larger than in January 2021 when President Biden took office.
- Immigrants from Latin American countries other than Mexico account for 60 percent of the increase in the foreign-born population since January 2021.
- We preliminarily estimate that illegal immigrants accounted for 61 percent, or slightly less than 1.8 million, of the growth in the foreign-born population since January 2021.
- As a share of the total population, the foreign-born now account for 14.6 percent of the population, or one in seven U.S. residents — the highest percentage in 112 years. As recently as 1990 they were one in 13 U.S. residents.
- If present trends continue, the foreign-born share of the population will reach 14.9 percent of the U.S. population in August next year, surpassing the all-time highs reached in 1910 (14.7 percent) and 1890 (14.8 percent).
- In addition to the immigrants themselves, there are also 17.2 million U.S.-born children (under age 18) with an immigrant parent — immigrants and their children now account for one in five U.S. residents (65 million).
- Initially, the dramatic increase in the foreign-born population in recent months could be seen as a return to the long-term growth trend over the last decade that was disrupted by Covid-19. Now, the 47.9 million immigrants in September exceeds the trend line by 1.1 million.
- At 143,000, the average monthly growth in the foreign-born population since President Biden took office is also significantly higher than the 76,000 per month in Obama’s second term, and the 42,000 per month under Trump before Covid-19 hit.
- Of the 47.9 million immigrants in the country in September, 29.4 million were employed — two million more than in September 2019 before Covid-19.
- While a large share of the recent increase in the total foreign-born population is due to illegal immigration, those in the country legally still account for three-fourths of all foreign-born residents.
This analysis is based on the monthly Current Population Survey (CPS), sometimes referred to as the “household survey”, collected each month by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The primary purpose of the survey is to collect information about the U.S. labor market, such as the unemployment rate. In recent years, many researchers have used the much larger American Community Survey (ACS) to study the foreign-born. The primary issue with the 2021 ACS is that it reflects the population in July 2021 and is now more than a year out of date. Normally, this would not matter that much, but the dramatic run-up in the numbers in just the last year means that the 2021 ACS cannot reflect the rapidly evolving immigration situation. For this reason, we use the monthly CPS.
We use the terms “immigrant” and “foreign-born” interchangeably in this report.1 The foreign-born or immigrant population in Census Bureau data includes all persons who were not U.S. citizens at birth — mainly naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, long-term temporary visitors, and illegal immigrants. The CPS shows a dramatic rebound in the foreign-born population after declining some in the latter half of 2019 followed by a dramatic fall-off in 2020 due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. While the monthly CPS is a very large survey of about 130,000 individuals, the total foreign-born population in the data still has a margin of error of about ±500,000 using a 90 percent confidence level. This means there is fluctuation from month to month in the size of this population, making it necessary to compare longer periods of time when trying to determine trends based on this data.2
Growth in The Foreign-Born Population
Recent Growth in the Foreign-Born Population. Figure 1 reports the total number of foreign-born residents in the United States from May 2019 to September 2022. Despite a strong economy before Covid-19 affected the country in March 2020, the figure shows the foreign-born population had already declined some in the latter part of 2019. Once travel restrictions were imposed and Title 42 expulsions began at the border, the immigrant population declined through the middle of 2020, hitting a low of 43.8 million in August and September of that year. The foreign-born population has rebounded by 4.1 million since the summer of 2020, though some of the increase immediately after the summer of 2020 may be due to better data collection as the pandemic abated rather than an actual increase in the immigrant population. The BLS does state that it has confidence in the quality of the data even at the height of Covid-19 in 2020.3
Figure 1. There are fluctuations in the data, but since President Biden's election, the foreign-born population has increased dramatically. (in millions)
Source: May 2019 to September 2022 public-use files of the Current Population Survey.
The Biden Administration. Since President Biden took office in January 2021, the foreign-born population is up 2.9 million. This 21-month increase can be seen as unprecedented.4 The big upturn in growth in the foreign-born numbers seems to have begun the month the president won office. Table 1 shows immigrants by region in January 2021 and September 2022.5 Immigration from Latin American countries other than Mexico, which actually declined a little, accounted for 60 percent of the growth in the foreign-born population since January 2021. The Caribbean, Central America, and South America each roughly account for one-fifth of the increase since January last year, with Sub-Saharan Africa accounting for another 12 percent. As discussed later in this report, the substantial increase in immigrants from the Western Hemisphere is an indication that illegal immigration has played a very large role in the growth of the foreign-born population since the beginning of 2021.
Table 1. Immigrant Population in the U.S. by Country and Region, January 2021 to September 2022 (in thousands)
|Share of Growth Accounted for by Region
Source: January 2021 and September 2022 public-use files of the Current Population Survey.
Regions defined in end note 5.
Longer-Term Growth in the Foreign-Born Population. Figure 2 shows the size of the foreign-born population from the start of President Obama’s first term in January 2009 to September of this year, along with margins of error. The 47.9 million immigrants in September 2022 is the largest number ever in American history. What is so striking about the recent run-up in the number of immigrants is that the growth represents the net change in their numbers. For this population to grow so much, significantly more than 2.9 million new immigrants had to arrive to offset emigration, which we previously estimated at about one million annually, and deaths among the existing foreign-born population of about 300,000 each year.6 Births to immigrants in the United States, by definition, can only add to the native-born population.
Figure 2. The foreign-born population grew more slowly during Trump's presidency than Obama's, while growth in Biden's has been truly dramatic. January 2009 to September 2022 (in millions)
Source: January 2009 to September 2022 public-use files of the Current Population Survey. Shaded area shows the margins of error around the point estimates, assuming a 90 percent confidence level.
* Pre-pandemic growth reflects change in the foreign-born population from January 2017 to February 2020.
The Foreign-Born Share of the Population. As a share of the total population, the foreign-born now account for 14.6 percent of the population, or one in seven U.S. residents — the highest percentage in 112 years. As recently as 1990, they were one in 13 U.S. residents.7 Taking a longer view, since 2000, the total foreign-born population has grown by 54 percent; it’s doubled since 1990, tripled since 1980, and quintupled since 1970. Historically, there has never been a 52-year period where the foreign-born population grew this fast. Technically, the monthly CPS also shows that the foreign-born population grew more than twice as fast as the U.S.-born population since the start of the Biden administration. However, given the way the data is weighted it is not really possible to compare the relative growth rates of the two populations, especially within the same year.8
Fluctuations During the Trump Years. Even before Covid-19 arrived, there was more fluctuation in the size of the foreign-born population during the Trump administration than during the Obama administration or Biden’s, which shows a steady increase. One way to see this is that the standard deviation (the average difference with the mean) of the change month-to-month during the Trump administration, before Covid hit in March 2020, was larger than in Obama’s first or second term or in Biden’s term, at least so far.9 The total immigrant population during the Trump administration peaked in March 2019 and then declined some in the months before Covid-19 followed by a significant fall-off as the pandemic unfolded in 2020.10 It should also be kept in mind that short-term trends in the monthly CPS can represent real changes or they may represent “random walks” in the data that are common when any series of surveys is compared over time.
Yearly Growth. Figure 3 shows the change in the immigrant population when compared to the same month in the prior year. As already mentioned, Figure 3 shows that the foreign-born population was declining before Covid, beginning in September 2019. The foreign-born population began to grow, relative to the same month in the prior year, in December 2020 and has continued to increase every month thereafter. While current increases are larger than in prior years, there have been other sustained periods of year-over-year growth in the foreign-born population since 2009. On the other hand, prior to this only once before (March 2018 to March 2019) has the foreign-born population grown by more than two million, year over year. One thing that that makes the huge increase year over year of more than two million in recent months so striking is that, as a general rule, it is harder for the foreign-born population to increase in size the larger it gets. This is because a larger immigrant population represents a larger pool of potential people who can “leave” the population through emigration and natural morality each year.11
Figure 3. Change in the Total Foreign-Born Population Compared to the Same Month in the Prior Year, January 2009 to September 2022 (in thousands)
Source: January 2008 to September 2022 public-use files of the Current Population Survey.
Increase in Immigrant Workers. Of the 47.9 million immigrants in the country in September of this year, 61 percent (29.4 million) were employed. The fact that “only” six in 10 immigrants work is an important reminder that immigrants are human beings — not just workers. While many work, others do not because they are too young or too old to work or because they are caring for young children or due to a disability or they simply do not wish to be employed for whatever reason. This is true of immigrants and the U.S.-born alike. But it does mean that it is overly simplistic to think of immigration as just adding workers. To be sure, immigration has certainly added millions of workers, but it also has added millions of non-workers as well.
Figure 4 reports the number of immigrants working each September since 2010. The 29.4 million currently working is two million more than in September 2019 before Covid-19. By September of this year, there do not seem to be any “missing” immigrant workers, as some have suggested. Immigrants now account for 18.5 percent of all workers in the United States. If we compare September 2020, when the impact of the pandemic was still very pronounced, to the present, the number of immigrant workers has increased by five million compared to an increase in U.S.-born workers of 6.2 million. This means immigrants represent 44 percent of the net increase in employment coming out of the 2020 pandemic-related recession.
Figure 4. Number of Foreign-Born Workers in the U.S., September 2010 to September 2022 (in millions)
Source: September public-use files of the Current Population Survey, 2010 to 2022. Figures are seasonally unadjusted.
A Resumption of Prior Tends?
Recent Increase Relative to Prior Administrations. One interpretation of the dramatic growth in the foreign-born population is that it is making up for the slowdown during Covid-19. There is truth to this, especially when it comes to legal immigration. During Covid, the processing of visas overseas greatly slowed. Of course, there is no reason legal immigration had to necessarily return to pre-pandemic levels, as the number of immigrants admitted is entirely a discretionary policy of the federal government, which is set by Congress. It is also true that the average increase each month in the Biden administration exceeds prior recent administrations. The immigrant population during the current administration has grown an average of 143,000 per month, compared to 76,000 per month in Obama’s second term, and 42,000 per month during Trump’s presidency before Covid-19 hit.12
Above or Below Trend? Another way to look at the long-term trend versus the current rapid growth is to plot a trend line in the growth of the foreign-born over the last decade. Figure A1 in the appendix shows such a trend line. By September of this year, the total foreign-born population was about 1.1 million above the long-term trend line, with no indication the growth is slowing down. As already pointed out, in the year prior to Covid-19, February 2019 to February 2020, the foreign-born population did not increase at all in size, despite a strong economy.13 The recent run-up in the numbers is not a resumption of the trend that existed immediately before Covid hit. As we discuss later, in our view, it makes more sense to see the current increase as a direct result of policy changes, particularly changes that spurred illegal immigration.
The Numbers Relative to the Past. Figure 5 shows that the 47.9 million foreign-born individuals in the country is much larger than in any year since 1900. In fact, it is larger than the foreign-born population measured in any prior decennial census or survey going back to 1850, when the foreign-born were first identified in the census. Of course, this is to be expected since the U.S. population was so much smaller in the 1800s relative to today. Although the increase in the last two years is dramatic in a relatively short period of time, taking the longer view, the growth over the last half-century has been truly enormous. Since 2000, the foreign-born population has grown by 54 percent; it has doubled since 1990, more than tripled since 1980, and quintupled since 1970.
Figure 5. Foreign-Born in the U.S., Number and Percent, 1900-2022, plus Census Bureau Projections to 2060
Source: Decennial Census for 1900 to 2000, American Community Survey for 2010, September Current Population Survey (CPS) for 2022. The CPS does not include the institutionalized. For 2030 to 2060, see Table 8 in “Census Projections Through 2060”, reissued in September 2018.
The Percentages Relative to the Past. The foreign-born share of the U.S. population at 14.6 percent in September of this year is triple the share in 1970 and nearly double the share in 1990. Looking at prior censuses shows that 1890 (14.8 percent) and 1910 (14.7 percent) were the only times the foreign-born share was higher than today. At 14.6 percent, the foreign-born share in September is approaching the all-time highs reached more than a century ago.14 When thinking about the impact on American society and the importance of absolute numbers versus percentages, it seems fair to assume that both the size of the foreign-born population and its share of the population matter.15
Where We’re Headed
Census Bureau Projections. In addition to the size of the foreign-born population and share of the population, Figure 5 also shows the Census Bureau’s most recent “main series” projections in red. (The projections include both legal and illegal immigrants) In its methodology, the bureau assumed new immigration would be quite high in the coming decades, rising steadily from about 1.6 million a year in 2020 to just under 1.9 million a year in 2060. Net migration (the difference between the number coming versus those leaving) is assumed to increase more slowly, from one million a year to 1.1 million annually over this time period.16 The large-scale immigration projected by the Census Bureau was expected to cause the foreign-born population to reach a record share of the population in 2028 of 14.9 percent and increase to levels thereafter not seen before in American history through the middle of this century.17 The bureau also projected that the total number of immigrants would be nearly 54 million by the end of this decade, and will continue to grow thereafter. In sum, the Census Bureau projections assumed high levels of immigration in the coming years that will cause the foreign-born population to surpass all prior highs, both in terms of their share of the population and in absolute numbers.
Current Numbers Relative to the Projections. The Census Bureau’s most recent projections were developed in 2017 and could not have foreseen the slowdown in immigration caused by the election of Donald Trump or as a result of the Covid-19 travel restrictions.18 Nevertheless, the 47.9 million immigrants in the country in September of this year is only slightly below the 48.1 million the bureau projected for July 2022 (Census Bureau projections are for July of each year). This is because any slowdown during the Trump years or during Covid-19 has now been entirely offset by the spectacular increases in 2021 and 2022 discussed above. At 14.6 percent, the foreign-born share of the population in September of this year is already above the 14.3 percent the Bureau projected for 2022. This is mainly because the overall U.S. population is somewhat smaller than the Bureau expected.
The overall U.S. population is smaller because there were fewer births and more deaths than what was projected by the Bureau.19 Fertility never recovered after the Great Recession in the way the Census Bureau thought it would and Covid-19 exacerbated this trend. To some extent, the opioid crisis and other social problems caused more deaths than anticipated, which Covid-19 dramatically increased. All of this has meant less “natural increase” (births minus deaths) than what the Bureau projected. For example, the Census Bureau’s official estimate for the U.S. population in July 2021 was just slightly under 332 million, the Bureau had projected it would be 335 million.
Projecting the Near-Term. Figure 6 projects the foreign-born population to the end of President Biden’s first term using a linear model based on trends in the foreign-born population since January 2021. It shows that the foreign-born share will hit 14.9 percent of the total U.S population in August 2023 — higher than at any time in American History. This record percentage is five years earlier than what the Bureau projected. Figure 6 also shows that the total number of immigrants will reach 51.7 million by the end of President Biden’s first term — a good deal higher than the 49.6 million the Census Bureau had projected for 2024.20 To be clear, Figure 6 is not a prediction, it simply reflects what will happen if recent trends continue. In a very real sense, absent a change in policy, America is headed into uncharted territory when it comes to the share of the U.S. population that is foreign-born, and it is doing so even more quickly than the Census Bureau had projected.
Figure 6. If the foreign-born population continues to grow at the current pace, it will reach 15.5 percent of the U.S. population and 51.7 million by the end of Biden's first term. Both will be record highs in American History.
Source: Trend lines reflect linear projections of the size of the foreign-born population and its share of the U.S. population based on the public-use files of the Current Population Surveys from January 2021 to September 2022.
The Children of Immigrants
The Minor Children of Immigrants. In addition to the immigrants themselves, one of the most important ways immigration helps to reshape American society is their children. Figure 7 reports the number of immigrants and the number of U.S.-born children under the age of 18 with at least one immigrant parent. In September of this year there were 17.2 million U.S.-born minor children of immigrants in the United States, accounting for 23.4 percent of all children. In total, there are now 65 million immigrants and their U.S.-born children in the United States, accounting for 19.8 percent of the total population or slightly less than one in five U.S. residents. This compares to 6.6 percent in 1970, the last time the decennial census asked about parents’ place of birth. In addition to U.S.-born children with immigrant parents, there are 3.1 million children who themselves are foreign-born. There are many fewer immigrant children because most immigrants arrive in the United States as adults and have their children once here. This creates the somewhat paradoxical situation whereby there are relatively few immigrant children but a very large number of children with immigrant parents. Overall, there are 20.3 million children — U.S. and foreign-born in the country — with immigrant parents, accounting for 27.7 percent of all children.
Figure 7. Foreign-Born Population and Their U.S.-Born Children Under Age 18, 2010-2022 (in millions)
Source: September public-use files of the Current Population Survey, 2010 to 2022.
Illegal Immigrants in the CPS. The Census Bureau is clear that illegal immigrants are part of the foreign-born in its surveys. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also acknowledges the inclusion of illegal immigrants in the CPS. In an analysis done in March of this year based on the monthly CPS, we estimated the illegal immigrant population in January 2021 and 2022. Producing estimates of the illegal immigrant population is always difficult, but the key problem with creating up-to-date estimates is the slow pace with which administrative data on legal immigration is released. Estimating the number of legal immigrants in the data is a necessary step in estimating illegal immigrants. In the appendix of this report, we explain how we updated our prior estimate. We preliminarily estimate that there were 11.76 million illegal immigrants in the September CPS, compared to 10 million in the January 2021 CPS. (Both figures are not adjusted for undercount in the survey.) If correct, it means that illegal immigrants accounted for nearly 1.8 million or 61 percent of the 2.9 million growth in the total foreign-born population since president Biden took office.
It makes sense to compare numbers in the CPS before adjusting for undercount if we wish to know how much illegal immigration accounts for the growth in the unadjusted total foreign-born population in the CPS. If we adjust for undercount, then the illegal population grew from 10.22 million in January 2021 to 12.03 million in September 2022. While this represents an enormous increase in the illegal immigrant population, after a period of relative stability for most the last decade, it must be remembered that the Border Patrol recently reported a record 2.4 million border encounters in FY 2022, following on the near-record of 1.7 million in FY 2021. A large share of these individuals were released into the country, in addition to those who made it past the Border Patrol and new visa overstayers. Of course, new illegal immigrants are offset by those already in the country who die, go home, get deported, or legalize each year. But it is certainly plausible given what is happening at the southern border that the illegal population has grown by 1.8 million since January 2021. It must be emphasized that our September 2022 estimate is only preliminary due to limited data availability.21
Indirect Evidence of Illegal Immigration. For the most part, illegal immigrants should show up in Census Bureau surveys as non-citizens. Moreover, the federal government, as well as outside researchers, have estimated that nearly three-quarters of illegal immigrants are from Latin America. Because of the 1986 IRCA amnesty, there are also virtually no illegal immigrants who arrived prior to 1980 currently living in the country.22 Figure A2 in the appendix reports the number of non-citizen Hispanics and non-citizen Latin Americans from September 2010 to September 2022 who indicated in the CPS that they arrived in the United States in 1980 or later. The relative stability in these populations between 2010 and 2019 is consistent with DHS, Center for Migration Studies, and Pew Research Center estimates showing only modest changes in the size of the illegal population in recent years. However, that has now changed. Compared to 2019 before Covid-19 hit, the Hispanic and Latin American immigrant populations are up by 1.7 and two million, respectively. To be sure, not all illegal immigrants come from the Western Hemisphere and a significant number of legal immigrants come from this part of the world. That said, the growth from this region is consistent with our estimate showing large increases in the number of illegal immigrants in recent years.
The Ongoing Border Surge. As already discussed, we estimate that the illegal population has grown dramatically since January 2021. The significant upturn in illegal immigration corresponds to the large surge of illegal immigrants at the southern border. The increase in border encounters seems closely related to President Biden’s campaign promises that created the perception, well before he even took office, that he would curtail immigration enforcement. Further, the administration’s decision to end the Migrant Protection Protocols (also called Remain in Mexico) for many asylum applicants, the scaling back of Title 42 expulsions, and then the decision to end it all together almost certainty spurred more illegal immigration. Based on court documents from Texas v. Biden, Center for Immigration Studies Resident Fellow Andrew Arthur reports 1.3 million individuals have been released into the country at the southern border since the beginning of the Biden administration. Media accounts also indicate that there may have been roughly 900,000 “got-aways” in FY 2021 and FY 2022 — illegal border-crossers observed by the Border Patrol but not apprehended. The decision to release so many people, as well as the success of so many in evading the Border Patrol, has added enormously to the illegal immigrant population and encouraged more illegal immigrants to arrive at the southern border in the hope that they, too, will be released or make it past the border patrol. Efforts by some in Congress to pass a bill legalizing illegal immigrants and the White House’s continued support for such legislation also cannot help but persuade some illegal immigrants to remain in the country and others to come.
Fall in Interior Enforcement. Another factor that has played a role in encouraging illegal immigration is the dramatic decline in interior enforcement. The vast majority of those deported each year are illegal immigrants, so fewer deportations means more illegal immigrants remain. As a matter of policy, the administration has suspended most deportations from the interior, even refusing to automatically take custody of non-citizens released from jails and prisons. This helped cause a dramatic decline in immigration enforcement in FY 2021. While we do not have enforcement data for FY 2022, Corey Price, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) executive associate director for Enforcement and Removal Operations, testified in a lawsuit brought by Florida that the administration removed seven times fewer illegal immigrants in the past year than ICE did a decade ago. He also testified that senior Biden officials knew the administration’s policy changes at DHS would reduce enforcement by at least half. Reducing interior enforcement not only means more illegal immigrants remain in the country, it also encourages other illegal immigrants in the country to stay and it increases new illegal immigration as current and perspective illegals realize the chance they will ever be made to leave is greatly reduced.
Legal Immigration. Illegal immigration is not the only factor causing the sudden growth in the overall foreign-born population. As discussed in the Appendix of this report, legal immigration has also increased significantly since January 2021, particularly in the last year. Based on our estimate, the number of legal immigrants grew by over one million between January 2021 and September 2022. A number of factors have likely contributed to the recent growth in the legal foreign-born population. The restarting of visa processing at American consulates has allowed many more permanent immigrants (green card holders) and long-term temporary visitors (e.g., guestworkers and students) to arrive from abroad. While a large share of the recent increase in the total foreign-born population is due to illegal immigration, overall those in the country legally still account for three-fourths of foreign-born residents. As a result, legal immigration still has a much larger impact on American society than illegal immigration.
Immigration has many impacts on American society, including cultural, fiscal, economic, demographic, and political. The effect is directly related to the scale of immigration. The latest data shows the scale of migration into the country has been enormous in the last 21 months. The government’s monthly Current Population Survey shows that the foreign-born population (legal and illegal) reached nearly 48 million in September 2022, the highest number ever in American history and an increase of 2.9 million just since January 2021. We estimate that illegal immigrants accounted for 61 percent, or slightly less than 1.8 million, of this increase.
As a share of the total population, the foreign-born now account for 14.6 percent of the U.S. population — the highest percentage in 112 years. If present trends continue, the foreign-born share of the population will surpass the all-time high in American history by September of next year. The country is headed into uncharted territory in terms of the foreign-born share of the population. Immigration is sometimes seen as like the weather — something outside the control of public policy. In fact, it must be understood that the level of legal immigration as well as policies and resources directed at controlling illegal immigration all represent policy choices. The dramatic growth in the foreign-born population in the last 21 months is the direct result of those choices. The key question that the public and policy-makers need to answer is whether they are good choices.
The Data. The monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) used in this analysis is collected by the Census Bureau. It is used primarily by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to measure unemployment and other labor-force statistics every month. The CPS surveys the non-institutionalized civilian population and, like virtually all modern surveys, the Census Bureau weights the data to reflect the total population. Each January, the population controls are readjusted to reflect updated information about births, deaths, and net international migration as more administrative and other data becomes available. The January 2022 adjustment had the effect of increasing the civilian non-institutionalized 16 and older population by 973,000. Of course, only a share of this increase was among immigrants. The whole point of the adjustments by the Census Bureau is to make the numbers more accurate. But it does mean that every January there is some break in the continuity of the data, which, of course, is true for all the information in the CPS, such as unemployment or labor force participation. In fact, all Census Bureau surveys are reweighted to reflect newer information, typically on an annual basis. The same is true of the bureau’s population estimates that are not survey-based. Thus, it can also be said that there is a break in the continuity of all Census Bureau data each year.
Potential Problems with the Data. The BLS reports that response rates to the CPS after March 2020 were lower than prior to Covid-19, though rates have improved since hitting a low in June 2020. These lower rates increase the sampling error of the survey. It is not known if this problem had any specific impact on estimates of the foreign-born in the data. However, in June 2020, when the problem was most pronounced, BLS stated that “Although the response rate was adversely affected by pandemic-related issues, BLS was still able to obtain estimates that met our standards for accuracy and reliability.” This is in contrast to the 2020 American Community Survey, which is the other large survey collected by the Census Bureau that identifies the foreign-born.
The Census Bureau’s Other Surveys. Consistent with the monthly CPS, the Census Bureau’s much larger American Community Survey (ACS) from 2020 also shows a significant decline in the foreign-born population between 2019 and 2020. The ACS is an annual survey.23 Unfortunately, the Census Bureau encountered significant problems collecting the 2020 ACS due to disruptions caused by Covid-19. As a result, the bureau states that it was “unable to collect information from certain segments of the population” in 2020, particularly lower-income and less-educated individuals.24 So we do not have a clear picture of the foreign-born in 2020 based on the ACS. The 2021 ACS was recently released and it shows a foreign-born population in July 2021 of 45.3 million, compared 44.9 million in the July 2021 monthly CPS. (The ACS reflects the population in July each year.) The difference in the two surveys is not statistically significant. This is an indication that the monthly CPS is able to produce estimates of the overall size of the foreign-born population that is similar to the much larger ACS.
In addition to the ACS and monthly CPS, there is also the Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the CPS (CPS ASEC) collected in March each year. It oversamples minorities and does identify immigrants. It has been an invaluable source of information on the socio-economic status of the nation’s immigrants for many years. The 2022 CPS ASEC shows a foreign-born population of 46.8 million, which is very similar to the 46.6 million in the monthly CPS for March 2022. The CPS ASEC is still basically part of the CPS. Again, given the rapidly evolving immigration situation, we use the more up-to-date monthly CPS, which can provide a picture of the foreign-born for September 2022. It should be noted that, in general, the monthly CPS produces somewhat smaller estimates of the foreign-born than the ACS and CPS ASEC in most years, but not all years.
Our estimate of illegal immigrants in the September 2022 CPS builds on our prior research that has attempted to estimate the size and growth of the illegal immigrant population using the monthly CPS. Using the most recent monthly CPS has the advantage of allowing us to generate up-to-date estimates, which is very useful from a policy point of view given the rapidly evolving immigration situation. But using the most recent CPS means that some of the data necessary to estimate illegal immigration is not available, particularly information on new legal immigration. This creates significant uncertainty about our estimates and means we can only create preliminary estimates of the illegal immigrant population that will need to revised as more information becomes available.
New Legal Permanent Immigration. From January to March 2022, DHS reported that 96,440 new lawful permanent residents (LPRs) arrived from outside of the United States. Unfortunately, that is the most recent LPR data available from DHS. However, the State Department does report the number of new LPR visas issued. That data shows 233,597 were issued between April and August 2022 for a total of 330,037 new potential LPRs entering the country. The CPS reflects the population at the beginning of each month, so arrivals in September, which are not yet available, are not part of the September survey. Some of those issued LPR visas may not have actually entered the country yet, but the vast majority should have done so and we assume this is the case in our analysis. In addition to these newly arrived green card holders, there are some unknown number of permanent residents who adjusted status from within the United States and were “out of status” when they adjusted — meaning they were temporary visitors who overstayed their visas. While we cannot say for sure how many illegal immigrants received green cards from within the United States, based on some information provided by DHS personnel we estimate that in FY 2019 roughly 90,000 out-of-status individuals received green cards that year; and we assume this was true January to September of this year.25 To the number of new LPRs (arrivals and adjustments) should be added the 16,651 refugees the Refugee Processing Center reported entered the country from January through August 2022.
Asylees and Other Humanitarian Categories. There were also 14,938 grants of asylum by the immigration courts in the first three quarters of FY 2022, which does not include grants after June.26 However, this number does not include all the grants of asylum. Asylum officers have the ability to grant affirmative claims of asylum — generally those who are in the country legally, but feel they cannot return home. We do not have new data on grants of asylum by asylum officers. This is even more important because the Biden administration has given asylum officers the ability to grant defensive asylum claims — this includes claims made by illegal border-crossers and those who present themselves at ports of entry. It seems certain this provision increased the number of asylum claims approved, but by how much is unknown. The last full fiscal year before Covid-19 was FY 2019 and there were 46,508 grants of asylum that year. This was prior to the current border crisis and the ongoing explosion of asylum claims. We estimated 39,000 grants in the first quarter of FY 2022 in our prior estimates. If that pace continued it would mean 104,000 grants by the end of August 2022, though there is significant uncertainty about this number. Finally, we also need to add in a few small humanitarian categories that provide green cards to illegal immigrants that likely numbered around 9,000 between January and September.27
Long-Term Temporary Status. The State Department has data on long-term temporary visas issued, a significant share of whom should show up in the CPS. Overall, 1.081 million long-term, nonimmigrant visas (including dependents) were issued by the State Department between January and September 2022 who might be captured in the CPS — mainly E, F, G, H, J, K, L, O, and T visas. This figure reflects the assumption that one-quarter of J1 and J2 visas issued over this time period would have returned home by September. It also reflects our prior finding that only 44 percent of new student visa holders are captured in the monthly CPS. This is partly because the CPS stopped surveying dorms in 2018, so foreign students tend to be significantly undercounted in the survey.
Putting the Numbers Together. If we put all legal immigration and legalizations of illegal immigrants from within the United States together and add them to our prior estimate of legal residents, after applying death, outmigration, and undercount rates, we find that the legal immigrant population that arrived in 1980 or later grew to 30.07 million — an increase of more than one million in just the nine months between January and September of 2022.28 If this rough estimate is correct, it represents a substantial increase compared to the 830,000 increase in post-1980 legal residents DHS estimated for the full year between 2017 and 2018 — the last two years for which there are DHS estimates. Following DHS’s approach, we take our estimate of legal immigrants and subtract it from the total number of post-1980 immigrants in the country (41.86 million) in September of this year to get 11.76 million illegal immigrants in the CPS — 12.03 after adjustment for undercount.29 Our estimate of 11.76 million in the CPS is 1.77 million more than our pre-adjusted undercount estimate for January 2021 and 660,000 more than our January 2022 estimate. If correct, it means that illegal immigrants account for 61 percent of the 2.9 million growth in the total foreign-born population since President Biden took office.
Uncertainty About Our Illegal Estimates. While our estimate of illegal immigrants in the CPS is plausible, it is only a rough preliminary estimate and should be understood as such. There are a number of reasons for this. Among the most important: First, we do not have a clear picture of how out-migration may have changed in the period immediately after Covid, particularly for illegal immigrants. The lack of enforcement statistics for FY 2022 compounds this problem. Second, we simply do not have up-to-date information for those granted asylum by asylum officers. Nor do we have LPR arrivals for the entire period January to August of this year, though we do have the number of immigrant visas issued. Third, we lack a clear picture of how many people received green cards while out of status. Fourth, there remains uncertainty about the scale of the undercount of legal permanent immigrants, non-immigrants, and illegal immigrants, specifically in the monthly CPS data. As more information becomes available, we hope to improve and refine our estimates, which may result in a lower or higher number.
Figure A1. The Foreign-Born Population Over the Last 10 Years, with Trend Line, September 2012 to September 2022 (in millions)
Source: September 2012 to September 2022 public-use files of the Current Population Survey.
Figure A2. The number of non-citizen Hispanic and Latin American immigrants who arrived in 1980 or later,* which substantially overlaps with illegal immigrants, was relatively stable, but shows significant growth in 2021 and 2022. (in millions)
Source: Public-use files of the September 2010 to September 2022 Current Population Survey.
* Based on the year of entry question in the survey. Due to the IRCA amnesty and Section 249 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, there are virtually no pre-1980 illegal immigrants in the country.
1 The term “immigrant” has a specific meaning in U.S. immigration law, which is all those inspected and admitted as lawful permanent residents. In this analysis, we use the term “immigrant” in the non-technical sense of the word to mean all those who were not U.S.-citizens at birth. Table A7 in the September 2022 employment situation report shows that the number of foreign-born residents 16 and older was 45.35 million and our analysis of the public-use data shows an additional 2.5 million immigrants under age 16 for a total foreign-born of slightly less than 47.9 million.
2 The margins of error shown in Figure 2 are based on standard errors calculated using parameter estimates, which reflect the survey’s complex design. To the best of our knowledge, neither the BLS nor the Census Bureau has provided parameter estimates for the general population in the monthly CPS, so we use those for the labor force.
3 See our appendix discussion on BLS’s statement about the collection of the monthly CPS during the Covid-19 pandemic.
4 With three exceptions, there has not been a 21-month period in which the immigrant population grew this much since 1994 when CPS began to regularly include a question on nativity. The exceptions include the 21-month periods ending in April, May, and June 2022, which involves comparing those months to the summer and fall of 2020 during the pandemic when the undercount of immigrants may have been higher, creating more apparent growth than was actually the case.
5 We define regions in the following matter: East Asia: China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Asia NEC/NS (Not elsewhere classified or not specified); Indian Subcontinent: India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal; Middle East: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Kuwait, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Northern Africa, Egypt/United Arab Rep., Morocco, Algeria, Sudan, Libya, and Middle East NS; Sub-Saharan Africa: Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Togo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa (Union of), Zaire, Congo, Zambia, and Africa NS/NEC. Unless otherwise specified; Europe: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom, Ireland, Belgium, France, Netherlands, Switzerland, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Azores, Spain, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Other USSR/Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, USSR NS, Cyprus, Armenia, Georgia, and Europe NS; Oceania/Elsewhere: Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Other, NEC, North America NS, Canada, Americas NS/NEC and unknown; Central America: Belize/British Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Central America NS.; Caribbean: Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the Caribbean NS; South America: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana/British Guiana, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, Paraguay, and South America NS.
7 The CPS does not include the institutionalized population, which is included in the decennial census and American Community Survey (ACS). The institutionalized are primarily those in nursing homes and prisons. We can gauge the impact of including the institutionalized when calculating the foreign-born percentage by looking at the public-use annual ACS, which does include the institutionalized. There are questions about the accuracy of the 2020 ACS and at the time of this writing the 2021 public-use ACS has not yet been released. But in 2019, immigrants (legal and illegal) were 13.64 percent of the total population in the ACS if the institutionalized were included and 13.72 percent when they were not included — less than one-tenth of a percentage-point difference. The distribution of immigrants across the institutionalized and non-institutionalized changes very little from year to year, so the foreign-born share of the population in September 2022 might have been about a one-tenth of 1 percent lower if the institutionalized were included.
8 The CPS shows that the U.S.-born population grew just 0.15 percent (427,000), while the foreign-born population grew 6.3 percent or just under 2.9 million. But the figures for the U.S.-born are almost certainly significantly understated. This is due to the methodology of the CPS. Like all modern surveys, the CPS is weighted to reflect the size and composition of the nation’s population. The survey is controlled to a total target population each month that is basically pre-determined — reflecting what the Census Bureau believes is the actual size and composition of the population across demographic characteristics carried forward each month. Each January, the weights are readjusted to reflect updated information about births, deaths, and net international migration. Though the weighting process is multi-stage and very complex, the key demographic characteristics used to weight the survey are race, Hispanic origin, sex, and age. Nativity is not one of the characteristics used in weighting. This means that the identification of the foreign-born reflects what survey respondents tell interviewers, much like employment status or educational attainment. Given that respondents can only be either U.S.- or foreign-born and the survey is controlled to a target population, an increase in foreign-born respondents results in a smaller U.S.-born population. As a result, it is not really possible to look at the relative growth in the two populations within the same calendar year. This is somewhat resolved in January each year when the weights are readjusted after more information becomes available. In fact, if we want to get some idea of how much the U.S.-born population is growing, we can compare January 2021 to January 2022. Doing so shows a 1.1 million increase in the U.S.-born population and this is probably a more reasonable picture of the growth in this population.
9 Using absolute values to calculate the standard deviations of the change month-to-month in each administration shows that during Trump’s time in office it was 214,000, before Covid-19 arrived. This compares to 206,000 in Obama’s first term and 189,000 in his second, and 147,000 in Biden’s first 21 months. Figure 2 also shows a particularly large spike in the foreign-born population from December 2017 to January 2018. This is partly explained by adjustments made in the CPS sample weights every January, though the size of the adjustment was not particularly large that year. (We discuss the January re-weighting more in the appendix.)
10 It is possible the peak in 2019 is related to the surge of family units and unaccompanied minors at the border, which had been increasing in 2018, and then exploded in February 2019.
11 To understand why this happens, consider a constant emigration rate of 2 percent. If the foreign-born population is 40 million, then it means about 800,000 people would be leaving each year, but if the population is 47 million then it would create emigration of 940,000 annually. Of course, actual emigration varies from year to year, but a larger foreign-born population means that the potential pool of immigrants who might leave in any given year is larger.
12 The average increase for Obama’s first term reflects growth in the foreign-born population between January 2009 and December 2012 of 2.76 million divided by 47 months to reflect the changes that occurred after January 2009 when he took office. (Although each presidential term lasts 48 months, there are only 47 monthly changes in the data in a single term, unless we count the change from December before an administration begins to January of the next year when they take office.) The average increase for Obama’s second term reflects growth in the foreign-born population between January 2013 and December 2016 of 3.56 million divided by 47 months. For Trump’s term before Covid, the average increase reflects growth in the foreign-born population between January 2017 and February 2020 (before Covid-19) of 1.57 million divided by 37 months. We chose February 2020 to reflect pre-Covid growth in the foreign-born population because Covid arrived in a big way in March. For Biden, the average reflects growth in the foreign-born population between January 2021 and September 2022 of just under 2.9 million divided by 20 months. Of course, dividing by 48 months for each of Obama’s terms, 38 months for Trump’s time in office through February 2020, and for all of Biden’s 18 months in office would produce very similar monthly averages: 57,000 for Obama’s first term, 74,000 for his second, 41,000 for Trumps first 38 months, and 136,000 for Biden’s first 21 months.
13 It is possible to create any number of different trend lines. For example, one could consider the height of the pandemic (March 2020 to December of 2020) as so unusual that those months should be excluded from the trend line calculations. If we do exclude those months, then by September 2022 the foreign-born would be about 800,000 above trend for the last decade. Alternatively, if we go all the way back to the first Obama term (starting January 2009) and plot the trend line, then the September 2022 figure is 900,000 above trend.
14 See end note 7 for a discussion comparing the CPS to the Decennial Census and American Community Survey.
15 When considering the impact of immigration on the country, the foreign-born share may seem like the only factor that matters. While percentages are important, the absolute size almost certainly matters as well. For example, when thinking about the successful integration of immigrants, 500,000 foreign-language speakers may be enough to create linguistic and cultural isolation or conversely an ethnic enclave that fosters entrepreneurship, whether this 500,000 constitutes 10 percent of an urban area or 30 percent.
16 This is partly because the bureau applies constant emigration rates by age, sex, Hispanic origin, and arrival cohort (see Table 2 of the projections methodology) to an ever-growing foreign-born population, which means that the number leaving the country is a bigger number over time. This has the effect of offsetting, to some extent, the larger number of new immigrants the Census Bureau foresees in the coming decades, resulting in net immigration that increases more slowly than new arrivals.
17 As for the historical size of the foreign-born population, the decennial Census did not identify all of the foreign-born until 1850, though the 1820 and 1830 censuses did report the number of “foreigners not naturalized” among the white population only. Those numbers along with immigrant arrival data and other research indicates that prior to 1850 the foreign-born were not more than 10 percent of the U.S. population.
18 In addition to Figures 2 and 3, our prior research using the much larger American Community Survey (ACS) we have also shown that the level of immigration was, on average, lower during the Trump administration before Covid-19 (January 2017 to February 2020) than in the prior Obama administration. While one can debate the reasons for this and the scale of the slowdown there is no question that growth in the foreign-born population slowed from 2017 to 2019. This was due to a combination of fewer new arrivals and an increase of return-migration (emigration) of immigrants.
19 For example, the Census Bureau projected 4.137 million births in 2021, but the actual number was less, at 3.659 million. Further the bureau projected 2.752 million deaths in 2021 and the actual number was 3.458 million. One caveat about these two numbers: The projections done by the Census Bureau are July to July of each year while the number of births and deaths is based on administrative data from the CDC and reflects the calendar year of 2021. Also, the 2021 deaths figures are only preliminary.
20 Table 8 in the Census Bureau projections shows the projected size of the foreign-born population by year. The key reason the immigrant population is now growing so much faster than the Census Bureau projected is that net international migration (see Table 1 of projections) has been much higher than the bureau assumed. It is possible to estimate net migration of the foreign-born by simply adding the growth in the foreign-born population to the number of expected deaths. While the monthly CPS, with its relatively large margin of error is not ideal for estimating net migration, if we add growth in the foreign-born year over year in the same month (as shown in Figure 3) beginning in January 2021, and add in deaths (six per 1,000), it produces an average annualized net migration figure of roughly 1.7 million among the foreign-born. This is about 70 percent higher than what the Census Bureau projected for this time period. If we just compare growth in the foreign-born population in September 2021 to the foreign-born population in September 2022, then the implied level of net immigration is more like 2.7 million. But given the limitations of the CPS, it makes more sense in our view to average a whole year of data to obtain a more statistically robust estimate of net migration rather than just two months of data.
21 In the appendix we discuss at length the challenges of producing estimates of the illegal population for September 2022.
22 In addition to IRCA, Section 249 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) allows individuals who have lived in the United States since January 1972 to apply for lawful permanent residency under what is often referred to as the “registry provision” of the law. This provision also makes it very unlikely that there are substantial numbers of pre-1980 illegal immigrants in the country.
23 The survey is collected throughout the year and controlled back to July 1.
24 The Census Bureau has published a detailed analysis showing some of the problematic results in the 2020 ACS. Due to problems with the 2020 ACS, the bureau has only put out a limited number of tables from the 2020 ACS.
25 This information shows the year of arrival for those adjusting status in FY 2019. Of those adjusting status from within the United States, 91,000 had arrived in 2005 or earlier, making it very likely that they were illegally present when they received their green cards. However, there is significant uncertainty about this number.
26 This figure is for the first three quarters of FY 2022, so it includes October through December 2021. However, we do not have information for July and August 2022, so we assume that the number in those months was roughly equivalent to the pattern at the end of the last calendar year.
27 This includes cancellation of removal, victims of human trafficking, and victims of other crimes and their families. Table 1B reports these numbers in these categories for the first two quarters of FY 2022. We assume that the pace of new green cards in the first part of the year in these categories continued through August.
28 It should be noted that this is not the increase in the number of all legal immigrants in the country because there are still millions of pre-1980 legal immigrants, who tend to be relatively old and among whom most deaths occur.
29 Our estimate of 41.86 million excludes all Cubans who arrived in 1980 to 2016, when the “wet foot dry foot” policy was in force and allowed virtually every Cuban who made it into the United States to eventually receive a green card. The policy was ended in January 2017.