Panel Transcript: Where Immigrants Live

An Examination of State Residency of the Foreign Born by Country of Origin in 1990 and 2000

By Mark Krikorian and Steven A. Camarota on September 5, 2003
Related: Report


Mark Krikorian, Executive Director at the Center for Immigration Studies

Steven Camarota, Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies

MARK KRIKORIAN: Good afternoon. I’m Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank here in Washington that examines and critiques the impact of immigration on the United States. All our work, including the report that we’re releasing today that you have hard copies of, all of our work, including that, is online at

Immigration over the past century is said to have become more diverse. In 1900, 86 percent of the foreign-born came from Europe, about 11 percent from Asia, and the entire rest of the world accounted for the remaining 3 percent, whereas in 2000 things had changed quite dramatically: immigrants from Europe accounted for only 16 percent of the total; Asians accounted for about 26 percent of the total immigrant population; and immigrants from the Western hemisphere, other than Canada, accounted for some 52 percent. Immigrants now come from literally every country on the planet, from Tonga to Tanzania, from Sweden to Sri Lanka. 

This is what people mean when they say that immigration has become more diverse; a much larger number of sending countries send immigrants. But when you look at the makeup of the immigrant population in a less simplistic fashion, the degree of diversity – and when you look at the degree of diversity in a more realistic way, something very different becomes clear, and that’s what we found in the report that we’re releasing today.

The author, who’s going to describe the report and tell you some of the findings, is Steven Camarota, director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies, and one of the nation’s leading experts on the impact of immigration on the United States. He’s author of a number of publications by the center, including “The Open Door: How Militant Islamic Terrorists Entered and Remained in the United States,” as well as “Importing Poverty: Immigration’s Impact on the Size and Growth of the Poor Population in the United States.” Steve will describe his findings in the report and then be open to questions any of you might have. 


STEVEN CAMAROTA: Thank you, Mark. As most of you I'm sure know, during the 1990s, the nation’s immigrant population grew by 11.3 million, faster than at any time in our history. The report we are discussing today examines the changing composition of the nation’s immigrant population, both at the national level and at the state level.

Now, the terms “immigrant” and “foreign-born” are used synonymously in this report. The definition of immigrant or foreign-born in this study is the same as that used by the Census Bureau. The foreign-born are persons living in the United States who are not U.S. citizens at birth. This includes naturalized American citizens, legal permanent residents, illegal aliens, and those on long-term temporary visas, such as students or guest workers. Analysis done by the Census Bureau, the INS, and others, indicates that seven to eight million illegal aliens and at least one million persons on long-term temporary visas responded to the 2000 Census. In this report, what we’re doing is comparing mostly the 1990 and 2000 Censuses to each other.

Well, we have a lot of different areas we touch on in the report. Let me concentrate on the part of the report that I think is the part that generates the most interest. The report shows that, as Mark said, in one sense, today’s immigration is more diverse than ever before because we now get people from every corner of the world. However, in another sense, diversity among the foreign-born has actually declined. One country, Mexico, and one region, Spanish-speaking Latin America, have come to dominate U.S. immigration during the decade, and this decline in diversity is even more pronounced at the state level.

Our overall findings show that nationally there has been a significant decline, as I said, in the nation’s immigrant population, at least as measured by the share coming from one country or region of the world. In 1990, immigrants from the top sending country, which was Mexico, account for 22 percent of the total foreign-born. By 2000, Mexican immigrants account for 30 percent of the total. In fact, Mexico alone accounted for 43 percent of the growth in the foreign-born population nationally during the 1990s.

This is important because it means that the decline in diversity is by no means over; it’s not finished. Because Mexico makes up such a large share of the growth, it will continue to increase as a share of the total. Now, looking at diversity as measured by the share of immigrants from just one region or part of the world also shows a significant decline in diversity. Nationally, immigrants from Spanish-speaking Latin America increased from 37 percent of the total to 46 percent of the total foreign-born during the 1990s. Again, the decline in diversity with regard to region of origin is not over either because immigrants from Spanish-speaking Latin America accounted for more than 60 percent of the growth in the total foreign-born. That’s because it accounts for a much larger share of the growth than it does the current total. Spanish speaking Latin America will continue to increase its share of the total foreign-born for some time to come.

Now, of course, declining diversity was mainly due to very uneven growth in the size of different immigrant groups. Just for example, the number of immigrants from Spanish-speaking Latin America increased by 7 million during the decade. In contrast, the number from East Asia rose by 2 million, and the number from Europe by less than 700,000, and the number from Sub-Saharan Africa only increased by about 400,000.

Now, this decline in diversity actually continues a long-term trend. In 1980, Mexico, already the leading sending country, accounted for only 16 percent of the total in that year. The trend of declining diversity actually goes back even further. In 1970, the top sending country was Italy, and it represented only about 10 percent of the foreign-born. Thus, the top country’s share has increases from 10 percent in 1970 to 16 percent in 1980, to 22 percent in 1999, to 30 percent in 2000. So this decline in diversity actually goes back for some time.

Now, how does this compare with the more distant past, say 100 or more years ago? Well, we really haven’t seen anything like it at least for a century. In 1930, for example, the Italians, by far the largest immigrant group, comprised 16 percent of the foreign-born. If we go back further it’s harder to say because one of the leading sending countries in the 1800s was Germany, but Germany was not a country for most of the 1800s. German unification doesn’t really take place until the late 1800s. In fact, many of the immigrants from what was to become Germany don’t say that they’re Germans even in the 1900 census. Rather they instead give their actual country they were born in, like Prussia or Bavaria. 

Germany was in many ways an area of similar language and cultural traditions, much like Latin America is today, but without an overarching state and with certain similarities but often a weak sense of national identity, or a limited sense. If we treat Germany as a region, then in 1880, the peak for German immigration, German-speaking immigrants accounted for 31 percent of the foreign-born, and that’s if we throw in the small number from Switzerland who are mostly German speaking as well. So that 31 percent in 1880 is certainly a very large share, to be sure, but it’s not the 47 percent we see today for Spanish speakers. Moreover, as I said before, Spanish-speaking countries account for 60 percent of the growth in the foreign-born during the ‘90s, thus, the diversity of today’s immigrants is not only less than it was in the past at any time, but the future is going to be even less diverse as well.

Now, turning from the national totals to the states we see a similar pattern. Tables 1 and 2 in the report provide information on the immigrant composition by state. The tables show that in 39 states, the share of the immigrant population accounted for by the top sending country increased in the ‘90s. That is, there was a decline in diversity. This decline was most dramatic in Arkansas, North Carolina, Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, and Utah, but even in some states that had little diversity in 1990, the situation actually became more pronounced during the decade. In Arizona, for example, immigrants from Mexico grew from 55 percent of the total to 67 percent. And in Texas, Mexican immigrants increased from 59 to 65 percent of the total. Even in California, a state often synonymous with immigrant diversity, Mexican immigrants increased as a share of the total foreign-born from 38 to 44 percent. In fact, in 24 states where diversity declined, the top country grew as a share of the total foreign-born by at least 10 percentage points. In contrast, there were only 11 states that saw an increase in diversity, and of those 11, there was only one in which the top country fell as a share of the total foreign born by more than 10 percentage points. Thus, increases in diversity were relatively rare and modest compared to decreases in diversity.

In many cases, the decline was due to the country that was already the top country in 1990, increasing its share by 2000. However, in many other states, the top country actually changed during the ‘90s. In 15 of the 39 states where diversity declined, the top sending country changed during the decade. Thus, in some cases there was a real shift in the leading sending country while in others there was an acceleration of an already existing pattern.

The decline in diversity among immigrants, as I said, is very widespread and it’s not confined, obviously, to a few states. In general, it took place in the West, in the South, and in the Midwest. The only place where it really didn’t take place so much was in the Northeast, but even there, in New Jersey and New York, the states with the largest immigrant populations in that part of the country, diversity actually declined slightly even in the 1990s. But for the most part it was a national phenomenon and the Northeast was not so affected.

Now, as I indicated, the decline in diversity reflects the very different growth rates among immigrant groups. Table 3 reports the growth during the 1990s for the largest countries. The table shows very different growth rates for different groups. In fact, some countries, the number of immigrants in the United States actually declined. And table 4 shows the same thing except for regions of the world; that is, growth by region of the world.

Now, the Mexican immigrant population is growing so rapidly really for two reasons: it is the leading sending country by far for legal immigrants, but also enormous growth in the illegal alien population from Mexico. The Immigration Service, before it went out of existence in January of this year, estimated earlier that immigration from Mexico grew by about three million during the decade and now accounted for about 80 percent of the total increase in the illegal alien population. The INS also estimates that about half the Mexican-born population in the United States resides here illegally. As a result, because Mexico dominates legal and illegal immigration, it’s quite understandable that its share of the total foreign-born increased dramatically.

It should also be pointed out that while mostly related to immigration from Mexico, the decline in diversity at the state level was not only associated with Mexican immigration. For example, in Alaska, Filipino immigrants went from 21 to 28 percent of the total, and in Hawaii, Filipino immigrants went from 45 to 49 percent. In Montana, immigrants from Canada went from 29 percent to 40 percent of the total. While these declines in diversity are not necessarily quite as large as some associated with Mexican immigration, it does suggest that declining diversity can occur even in the absence of large-scale immigration from Mexico.

Now, measuring diversity by region of the world at the state level reveals a very similar picture as found in tables 1 and 2, which, again, looked at things by country rather that region of the world. In 2000, Spanish-speaking countries from Latin America were the top-sending region in 33 states, up from 12 states in 1990. In 11 of the 12 states where Spanish-speaking countries were already the largest group in 1990, the again increased their share, but in 21 other states, immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries became the top country. While in general what happened was they displaced European immigrants as the top sending region, this was not true in every state. In Oklahoma, Georgia, Oregon, and Tennessee, East Asia was the leading sending region in 1990, but by 2000, Spanish-speaking Latin America was the leader.

Now, so far I’ve focused only on the issue of diversity, but a good part of the report actually looks at the changing pattern of immigrants by country, and I find those findings very interesting as well. Tables 6, 7 and 8 look at this question. Let me just touch very briefly on some of the findings of the changing pattern of immigrants element very briefly. 

Immigrants from some countries, the table shows, became much more diffuse, much more spread out during the decade. For example, the percentage of immigrants from Mexico, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, concentrated in a single state -- that is, only living in one state and the rest somewhere else – actually fell significantly during the decade. That is, immigrants from Mexico, Dominican Republic and El Salvador, for example, became more spread out and less of them lived in just a single state. Now, in contrast, interesting enough, immigrants from Cuba actually became more concentrated, while the share of immigrants from such countries as Iran, Colombia, Jamaica and Haiti concentrated in a single state remained virtually unchanged in the 1990s.

Now, we can talk more about this later in detail, if any of you have any questions, but in general I would say it is the case that immigrant groups generally became more diffuse during the 1990s, but it’s important to note that this was by no means a universal phenomenon; some immigrant groups did not and in fact became more concentrated.

Now, overall, returning to the issue of diversity and the changing composition of U.S. immigrants, we don’t really discuss the costs or benefits of that declining diversity in the report, but it does seem reasonable to wonder what are the implications of this changing nature of U.S. immigration? It must have some impact. I think the most serious potential problem associated with a larger and less diverse immigrant population is that it may hinder the assimilation and integration of immigrants by creating the critical mass necessary to foster linguistic and spatial isolation. A more diverse immigrant population, on the other hand, may increase incentive to learn English or become familiar with American culture more generally. After all, the English language and American culture are the means by which diverse groups communicate with each other and the larger society. If there exist very large immigrant enclaves where one can find a job, go shopping, buy a newspaper and never have to speak or interact with another immigrant group or with native-born Americans, this could fundamentally reduce the need to Americanize. The numbers are now so large and the diversity has declined so much that it could make assimilation much slower than in the past. 

Now, I think this is important because I think many Americans are dissatisfied with the pace of immigrant assimilation. You often hear people say, well, these immigrants, they just don’t want to learn English, and so forth; they don’t want to assimilate. But I think this misses a larger point. If immigrants are – and this is an open question – not assimilating at a satisfactory pace, I would argue that the huge numbers we now see, coupled with a significant decline in diversity, reduce the opportunities and incentives to assimilate. In effect, current immigration policy – and that’s what it is, a policy of non-enforcement and record legal immigration – is overwhelming the assimilation process. 

It may also be the case that this is a particularly inopportune time for the diversity among immigrants to decline with regard to assimilation because they are other factors at work that also make it more difficult to assimilate immigrants that in the past, and these factors are independent of immigrant diversity but they almost certainly work to magnify its effect. Let me point out two of them. The first is technology. It is now possible to call home, visit home, or even listen to your hometown radio station on the Internet in a way that was not dreamed of 100 or even 50 years ago. In the past, distance broke the psychological and physical tie with the home country in a way that is no longer the case. 

Now, a second factor that may make assimilation more difficult is the rise of what may be described as the multicultural vision of America. This view sees the country and its history as one based on group identity. From this perspective we are a nation where different groups compete in the political and social arena as groups. And immigrants may be taught to see their culture as something that must be preserved in the face of an oppressive majority culture, and this is certainly a change from the past. Now, in this environment, if immigrants assimilate, they do so as multicultural Americans. They emphasize their group identity and think this is the American tradition.

Now, it must be pointed out that this does represent one tradition in America, and many Americans agree, especially in academia, with this multiculturalist perspective. But it’s probably the case that most ordinary Americans do not, and this I think creates a lot of public apprehension about immigration. In effect, the public may want one thing from immigrants and intellectuals may want something else. It is probably fair to say that Americans really, as a nation, we cannot agree on what we want from the immigrants, and this is a real problem because when you don’t know what it is you want or what the goal should be, it becomes almost impossible to measure progress.

Now, in fairness, it must be pointed out that there must also be benefits to a less diverse immigrant population. Let me just give an example. If most immigrants in a state or city come from one cultural linguistic group, then providing welfare or other government services may be easier for government agencies because they will only have to sensitize themselves to the needs of one immigrant community in order to provide services, rather than many. In addition – let me give you another example of what might be a benefit of less diversity – natives might find it easier to live in areas of heavy immigrant settlement if there is only one dominant group because they will only have to become familiar with one culture. For example, an American may only have to learn one foreign language rather than several in order to get or keep a job.

Now, it must be emphasized that this report does not provide any evidence of benefits or costs associated with immigrant less diversity. Instead, we provide a detailed description of this important change taking in American society. So it is our hope that we would stir debate and intelligent discussion on that issue by providing a clear-headed look at the available data.

With that, I would be happy to open it up to questions if anyone has any.

Q: (Off mike.)

MR. CAMAROTA: As I point out in the report, I exclude Brazil. So I exclude Brazil, the Francophone Caribbean, and the English-speaking Caribbean as well. The Census Bureau often just lumps all Latin America together, and that doesn’t make too much sense because, for example, Haiti or Jamaica have different cultural and linguistic tradition than Spanish-speaking Latin America. So what I have done is just pull those folks out and treat them as non-Spanish-speaking Latin America, and then I put Canada in as a separate category.

Q: (Off mike.)

MR. CAMAROTA: Yeah, populations when I didn’t quite –

Q: (Off mike.)

MR. CAMAROTA: Oh, no, we only look at immigrants in the United States, so the 9.2 million for Mexicans, that’s just Mexican-born people living in America.

Q: (Off mike.)

MR. CAMAROTA: Oh, I see, how it reflects sort of – now, obviously, East Asia is going to swamp everything, you know, because there are, whatever, 1.8 billion people in East Asia, comprising 25, 30 percent of the total population, and East Asia doesn’t make up – South Asia also, with India with a billion people, and then Pakistan and Bangladesh, that’s about 1.4 billion people, I believe. So those two regions of the world would make up – or if they were – if the proportions were the same in the United States, they would make up, I guess, roughly half or more. But obviously, they don’t, so in that sense, there’s a big difference. 

Spanish-speaking Latin America, I don’t know what the population is. It’s about 700 million, I think; about half of what East and South Asia are, very roughly. I’m not 100 percent sure. So they – maybe Spanish-speaking Latin America makes up 20 percent, 23 percent of the world’s population, if that. No, I think it’s less; it’s got to be less than that, much less. It’s more like maybe 16 percent, something like that, but I’m not sure. We could look that up if we need to.

Yes, go ahead?

Q: (Off mike.)

MR. CAMAROTA: Oh, I think the whole thing should be seen exactly in that light. As I said, this represents a policy choice about who gets legal status, who gets – who gets temporary – long-term temporary visas who show up here. So that’s the legal component, and then efforts to control illegal immigration. So clearly, U.S. immigration policy is the determinant factor. If you don’t control your border – if you let people in the country illegally get drivers licenses, open bank accounts, get in-state tuition, and most importantly find employment, you’re going to get a lot of illegal aliens, especially from countries with large wage differentials, like Mexico or Central America, and pretty close proximity. 

There are other factors, though. U.S. immigration policy operates in a particular context, and immigration is driven by lots of factors: economic – people’s desire for economic or political freedoms; and also networks of friends and family, so that places that send a lot of immigrants or that there is an existing large immigrant population from a country, then you would expect – and this is what we see – is that in the next decade, that’s where a large share of immigrants will come from because that’s the place that has the critical mass of people who have connections in their home country to bring folks. Now of course, again, that’s the context in which U.S. immigration policy operates. It’s a choice that we make, to not enforce our immigration laws and have very generous legal immigration of a million a year, 1.1 million legal immigrants a year; and also now increasingly a very generous policy on temporary visas, giving out half a million to a million long-term temporary visas a year as well.

Q: (Off mike.)

MR. CAMAROTA: Yeah. In the report itself – its table where you could sort of maybe think about that. Take a look at table 6, which has the hundred largest countries and their top seven areas of immigrant settlement, and then you would want to look at table 7, which has it for 2000. And what you would want to do is go through that list and find countries – I divided Africa. North Africa went with the Middle East for linguistic and religious reasons, but Sub-Saharan Africa is treated as its own region here. But the point is that you can look at the individual countries and – for example, Nigeria, the top state in 2000 of settlement was Texas, and then you can look across and see it goes California, New York, but you could compare that to Nigeria in 1990 and take a look there. And if you want, you can give me a call. I actually have a more extensive list than this. The top states, it looks like, on table 6 for Nigeria is – Nigeria was the 50th ranked country in 1990, and again Texas, California, New York were the leading areas of settlement. Also, if you look on the state tables, you can try to pick out African countries as well and see where they are, and see how they may have changed in the ‘90s as well. But it wasn’t – you know, it wasn’t something I looked at in great detail, but the information is here if you’re interested.

Do we have any other questions at all? Bill, I know you must have a question. Go ahead. Yeah.

Q: (Off mike.)

MR. CAMAROTA: Well, obviously, in any intellectual thought there is going to be some tension on any side of an issue, but I guess in the multicultural perspective, you could argue that it represents a kind of tension. There is this emphasis on group identity and groupthink, but on the other hand, there is an emphasis on – well, think the vision is that they will interact as groups in that way because what they would say is, I guess, that that is the way in which people actually operate anyway. But you’re right: there is an inherent tension. In terms of this, you’re right: it could be the case that you get real isolation, and that’s a real potential when one group of immigrants make up such a large share of the foreign-born that that kind of isolation – that might be problematic, especially in terms of contact with the rest of society. 

Putting aside for a minute the assimilation of immigrants, I think it’s much more likely that the non-immigrant, the native-born population, will view the immigrant population more suspiciously if the numbers are very large and they all come from one place, rather than a lot of diversity. So I think that’s a potential problem as well, not just the way the immigrants assimilate, but the equally important question of how the larger society views them.

Q: (Off mike.)

MR. CAMAROTA: Well, I’m not actually making the case one way or the other; that the evidence here, I raised the point that in this case, that would seem to be one of the potential problems, but I also point out there might be benefits. But specifically, obviously, those groups are very small and it might be the case, for example, if those Burmese exiles were very spread out, then their acquisition of English and intermarriage rates and so forth might be greatly facilitated, but also they might lose their sense of Burmeseness, their kind of critical mass necessary to maintain a sense of community. And I think that really hits at, I mean, exactly what I was talking about. We don’t know what we want. Which is it that we want? And I think there are various streams of thought in the United States. Some streams are more common, I think, among regular folks, and some ideas are more pronounced among intellectuals and academics. I mean, it’s this confusion, this disagreement, lack of consensus if you will, that I think probably makes immigration so contentious. 

But, of course, those groups are so tiny – which state were you talking about? Indiana? I was going to take a look at Indiana for you and see how large those – I think – I grouped all the former Yugoslavia together, so it will make those numbers a little bigger.

Q: (Off mike.)

MR. CAMAROTA: Oh, okay. Non – okay, well, that was a long time ago, then; I see. But there is some immigration from, I think, the former Yugoslavia. Does Burma show up as one of the top 15 in – yeah, so it must be smaller than 2,000 as opposed to 60,000 or 61,000 for Mexico. So there is a situation –

Q: (Off mike.)

MR. CAMAROTA: Yeah, fair enough. Fair enough. And I think that – but in Indiana, anyway, as a state, you have overwhelming percentage coming from just one community, and that’s what we see here. It may be the case that, for that one community, things are difficult, and for those smaller ones, they might assimilate more easily or not. But, you know.

Do we have any other questions of any kind? Okay, then. As I said, the report is available, along with all of our stuff. I want to thank you all for coming. You can go to our website,, and get anything that you might need, and I will be here for a little bit if you have any other questions or comments.