When it comes to immigration policy, politicians rarely mention the most important question — how many? It’s like discussing government programs without ever mentioning how much is being spent. Whatever party ends up controlling Congress, sooner or later, this question must be addressed because numbers are what ultimately determine the impact on the country.
The latest data show the numbers are truly enormous. The September 2022 Current Population Survey shows the total immigrant population (legal and illegal together) is almost 48 million. This is by far the largest number of immigrants, also called the foreign-born, ever recorded in any U.S. government survey or census.
About one-quarter (roughly 12 million) of the overall foreign-born are illegal immigrants. An estimated 1.8 million of the 2.9 million increase since President Joe Biden took office is due to illegal immigration.
There is rightly a lot of concern right now about illegal immigration. But for some, the only issue is illegality, not numbers. In fact, a number of commentators, politicians, and activists have proposed substantially increasing legal immigration with the goal of turning an illegal flow into a legal one. But this ignores the massive increase in immigration the country has already experienced.
Since 2000, the number of legal and illegal immigrants in the country has grown by 54%. The number has doubled since 1990, tripled since 1980, and quintupled since 1970. Historically, there has never been a 52-year period in which the immigrant population grew anything like this.
As a share of the total population, immigrants now account for 14.6% of the population — nearly double the share in 1990. We are now just slightly below the highest percentage ever in U.S. history, which was reached more than a century ago. If current trends continue, we will blow past that record next year. America is headed into uncharted territory.
All of this should put the numbers at the very center of the immigration debate. But they’re not. In fact, those advocating more immigration rarely even bother to argue we can easily assimilate all the people already here, let alone more immigrants. A century ago, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, himself the son of immigrants, said, “The immigrant is not Americanized unless his interests and affections have become deeply rooted here. And we properly demand of the immigrant even more than this — he must be brought into complete harmony with our ideals and aspirations.”
No doubt, a large share of ordinary people agree with Brandeis, but our national leaders are far less certain. Do they want assimilation? A melting pot? Multiculturalism? In truth, there is no elite consensus. This is why politicians hardly ever mention assimilation — they don’t want to offend anyone.
It makes little sense to allow record-setting levels of immigration when we can’t even agree on what we want from immigrants. Equally important, the absorption capacity of our schools, infrastructure, and healthcare system should be prominent in any immigration discussion.
We also need to discuss what adding millions of people means for the environment and quality-of-life issues such as traffic. Pew Research estimated that immigration has added 72 million people to our population since 1965 and will add a similar number over the next half-century.
The chief justification given by politicians and activists for immigration has been the need for workers in our aging society. But prior research is very clear: Immigration can increase the size of the population, but it cannot fix population aging. Demographers, who study population, have long known it does not fundamentally change the age structure of receiving countries — partly because immigrants age over time. Immigration adds to the population across all ages, not just workers. Of the roughly 48 million immigrants in the country, only 29 million are actually working.
We keep hearing that we need even more immigration because there are not enough people who can work. But the real crisis in the labor market is all the working-age people on the sidelines. The low unemployment rate is misleading because it includes only those who have looked for a job in the last four weeks. It does not include all the working-age people who are not working or even looking for a job. That number has exploded in recent decades, particularly among the less educated. Research by myself and Karen Zeigler shows that there were 48 million 18- to 64-year-olds not working or looking for work in the first part of 2022 — nearly 12 million more than in 2000.
There are many reasons for this decline, but the role of immigration, both legal and illegal, is hard to dismiss. The National Academies found in 2016 that by increasing the supply of labor, immigration reduces the wages for some workers. This almost certainly reduces the incentive to work.
Perhaps most important, allowing in so many foreign workers makes it less likely that we will reform welfare and disability programs, combat the opioid crisis, improve job training, and do all the other things necessary to get less-educated Americans back into jobs.
With immigrants set to become a larger share of the population than at any time in U.S. history, we need a national debate about what this means for our schools, infrastructure, natural environment, healthcare system, and labor market. That debate must focus on the most important question — numbers.
Steven A. Camarota is the director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies.