How U.S. immigration has changed in the past few decades : The Indicator from Planet Money Nearly 17 percent of the U.S. labor force is made up of immigrants. That's up from 12.4 percent in 2000, and 6.7 percent in 1980. What that means for the economy.
NPR logo

How Immigration Is Changing The U.S. Economy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How Immigration Is Changing The U.S. Economy

How Immigration Is Changing The U.S. Economy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript




Hey, everyone. It's Cardiff. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY.

There are almost 45 million immigrants living in the United States right now. That's more immigrants than live in any other country in the world. And here's something about the role of immigrants in the U.S. labor market that you might not know. If you take all of the people in the U.S. who are working age - so that's people between the ages of 25 and 64 - well, all of the growth in that population of adults over the next decade and a half is expected to come from immigrants and from the first generation children of immigrants. In other words, this huge part of the U.S. labor force would be declining if not for immigration. So understanding immigration trends also helps us to see what the U.S. economy is going to look like in the future.

Today on the show, we are speaking with Mark Hugo Lopez. He's the director of global migration and demography research at the Pew Research Center. And he's going to take us on a tour of long-term U.S. immigration trends past, present and Future.


GARCIA: Mark Hugo Lopez, welcome to the podcast.

MARK HUGO LOPEZ: Thank you. It's great to be here.

GARCIA: So, Mark, I actually want to start with a question about unauthorized immigration to the U.S. because I think it's something that's misunderstood by a lot of people. So right now, slightly less than a quarter of the immigrants in the U.S. are unauthorized immigrants. But you and your colleagues at Pew Research pointed out recently that the number of unauthorized immigrants has actually been falling by a lot since about 2007. So take our listeners through the facts. What is happening with this trend?

LOPEZ: Well, we reached a peak population of 12.2 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. in 2007, and that was right before the Great Recession. But once the recession hit, we saw a sharp decline in the number of new arrivals, particularly from Mexico, which had been a major source of immigrants for many years. And that's really been the driver in this decline to where, as of 2017, we estimate that there is 10 1/2 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. Most of that decline has come from Mexican immigrants, who are less likely to be coming into the U.S. than in the past. But we've also seen some changes in the composition of unauthorized immigrants. For example, there are more from Central America, but also notably more from countries like India as well.

GARCIA: Yeah. And that decline in Mexican unauthorized immigrants to the U.S., that's being driven by some economic trends as well, right?

LOPEZ: That's right. Mexico has seen some changes over the decades. And you can see, for example, that of course Mexico has more opportunities, particularly for those who have education. So there's certainly been an incentive to stay in Mexico because of changes there. But also, the United States and its economic situation plays a role in attracting immigrants. And in the case of Mexico, as the U.S. hit its economic downturn first in the housing market, then with the Great Recession, many Mexican unauthorized immigrants were coming to work in construction, for example. And so Mexican immigration slowed partly because the U.S. economy had a large downturn.

GARCIA: Yeah. And here's another kind of interesting finding from Pew Research, which is that over roughly the last decade-plus, the makeup of immigration has also changed. The immigrants are coming from different regions of the world than they used to. So take us through that trend as well.

LOPEZ: One of the big changes, at least since the mid-2000s, has been that Hispanic immigration or immigration from Latin America has slowed. And that's largely been driven by the decline in Mexican immigration but also a decline in immigration from many other parts of Latin America. But at the same time, we've seen a steady rise in the number of immigrants coming from Asia, with India and China being the biggest sources of new arrivals to the United States in the last decade or so. And they've actually both surpassed Mexicans among new arrivals, so that now the biggest source of new immigrants to the United States these days is actually from Asia, with China and India being the biggest sources of those new immigrants.

That's a significant change because for 40 years, Latin America - particularly Mexico - was the biggest source of new immigrants to the United States. And, in fact, on the world stage, Latin America had been the biggest source of new migrants globally at least since the 1960s. But since 2010 or so, we've really seen other parts of the world rise. And the U.S. has seen some of those changes, with more people coming from Asia now, for example.

GARCIA: Yeah. And, Mark, relatedly, you've also noted that there's been a shift in the average educational attainment of immigrants over time. So what's happening there?

LOPEZ: That's right. And particularly you see this from people coming from Asia, many of whom have a college degree or an advanced degree, but even from Latin American immigrants, from countries like Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, countries which traditionally have sent immigrants to the U.S. who have a high school degree or less in terms of educational attainment. We've seen over the last 20 years or so a rise in their educational attainment as well, at least among those coming to the U.S. And that's notable because the U.S. as a - in terms of its immigrant population tends to have people who have either a college degree - they make up about a third of U.S. immigrants - or have less than a high school diploma, who also make up about a third of the 45 million immigrants living in the U.S. today.

GARCIA: Mark, another interesting focus of your research has been about the way immigrants and their descendants integrate into society and into the economy over time. And specifically, you looked at something interesting about intermarriage rates of immigrants and their kids. So that's marriage between somebody in an immigrant group with somebody who is not in that same group. So can you take our listeners through that?

LOPEZ: Yeah. So one of the things that's most interesting is when you take a look at, for example, Asian Americans in the United States, among those who are newlyweds - and many of them are immigrants because the majority of the Asian population is foreign born - you'll find that, for example, 28% of Asian newlyweds marry somebody who's not Asian. Among Hispanics, also a population with a large immigrant share, you'll find that about 25% of Hispanics who get married marry somebody who is not Hispanic. This is interesting because this potentially has implications for how these groups of immigrants and their offspring eventually identify themselves in subsequent generations. Will they still see themselves as Hispanic or Asian in the future or as something else depending on how people in the future see their identity here in the United States?

GARCIA: Yeah. And this is something common in U.S. history - right? - where big immigrant groups arrive, and then over time their kids and their grandkids are sort of absorbed into the rest of the U.S. population. And their identities become more mixed, more kind of amorphous through the generations.

LOPEZ: That's right. That's part of the story of the U.S. immigrant experience. It's been a story for the last, oh, almost 200 years of immigrants arriving in the United States from elsewhere around the world. I think it does remain to be seen what identities people in the future will develop depending on their ancestry, their background and their awareness, frankly, of where their families are from. Interestingly, I think this year's 2020 census will give us an opportunity to see how Americans generally see their ancestry because Americans will for the first time be able to tell us on a census whether or not they're Irish or German or whether they're Jamaican or, as they have always been able to do, to tell us whether they're Mexican. Those will all give us some indication of how they see their identity today, many of whom have immigrant roots three or four generations ago, for example.

GARCIA: Yeah. And my last question, Mark, is just, what are the long-term immigration trends that you're going to be watching and that the rest of us should also be sort of paying attention to as well?

LOPEZ: Well, it remains to be seen how immigration trends will evolve post-COVID-19 because many countries have closed their borders, and migrant flows are not quite what they were prior to COVID-19. But the one part of the world that looks to be poised to be a source of new migrants into the future, at least for the rest of the century, is Africa. It is a very young population. And it's a population that has started to see many people migrate within Africa and also outside of Africa to places like Europe and the United States. It's possible Africa could become the main source of migrants in the future, partly because places like Latin America, which used to be an important source, are aging and don't quite have the same youth that they used to. So we'll see what happens. But it's possible that we may see more migrants coming to the U.S. from places like Africa in the future.

GARCIA: Mark Hugo Lopez, thank you so much.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin and fact-checked by Sean Saldana. The INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.