The United States, a country with a rich immigrant heritage, is experiencing a profound demographic and cultural transformation. The number of immigrants in the U.S. is at its highest point in history, and the rate of immigrant-driven transformation, which began in earnest in the 1960s, is expected to continue to accelerate.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the foreign-born population increased from 19.8 million in 1990 to 31.1 million in 2000, representing the largest number of immigrants ever seen in the United States. While the foreign born now account for 11.1 percent of the total population, this figure is still lower than the historic peak of 14.8 percent in 1890 (see graph below). This Spotlight examines some of the demographic, social, and economic characteristics of this important part of the U.S. population.
Number of Immigrants and Immigrants as Percentage of the US Population, 1850 to 2011
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There has been a steady increase in the number and percentage of foreign born in the United States since 1980. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were over 31.1 million foreign born in the United States in 2000, representing 11.1 percent of the total population. In 1990, there were 19.8 million foreign born, or 7.9 percent of the total population. In 1980, there were 14.1 million foreign born, or 6.2 percent of the total population.
The foreign-born population increased at a faster rate between 1990 and 2000 than between 1980 and 1990. Between 1990 and 2000, the foreign-born population increased by 11.3 million, representing a 57.4 percent increase. Between 1980 and 1990, the foreign-born population increased by 5.7 million, or by 40.4 percent.
According to Census 2000, of the total foreign born in the United States, 42.4 percent arrived between 1990 and 2000, 27.2 percent arrived between 1980 and 1989, and 30.4 percent arrived before 1980.
Of the total foreign born in the United States in 2000, 51.7 percent were from Latin America, 26.4 percent from Asia, 15.8 percent from Europe, 2.8 percent from Africa, 2.7 percent from Northern America (including Canada, the United States, Bermuda, Greenland, and St. Pierre and Miquelon), and 0.5 percent from Oceania. Of the 16.1 million foreign born from Latin America, 69.6 percent were from Central America, 18.4 percent from the Caribbean, and 12 percent from South America.
According to Census 2000, of the total foreign born in the United States, 29.5 percent were born in Mexico, 4.4 percent in the Philippines, and 3.3 percent in India. This is followed by 3.2 percent in China (excluding Hong Kong and Taiwan), 3.2 percent in Vietnam, 2.8 percent in Cuba, 2.8 percent in Korea, 2.6 percent in Canada, 2.6 percent in El Salvador, and 2.3 percent in Germany.
Of the total foreign born in the United States, the majority reported white alone (43 percent) or Asian alone (22.5 percent) as their race in Census 2000. Additionally, 21.5 percent reported some other race alone, 6.8 percent black or African American alone, 0.4 percent American Indian and Alaska Native alone, 0.2 percent Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander alone, and 5.5 percent two or more races.
In the United States, there were 14.2 million foreign born who reported a Hispanic/Latino origin in Census 2000, representing 45.5 percent of the total foreign-born population (31.1 million) and 40.2 percent of the total Hispanic/Latino population (35.2 million).
Census 2000 reported that 40.3 percent of all foreign born in the United States were citizens. By comparison, 40.5 percent of all foreign born in 1990 and 50.5 percent of all foreign born in 1980 were citizens.
According to Census 2000, among the foreign born for whom poverty status was determined, 17.9 percent had an income in 1999 below poverty level (the poverty threshold for a family of four people was $17,000). Among foreign-born citizens, 10.6 percent lived in poverty, compared with 22.8 percent of foreign-born non-citizens.
In 2000, of the foreign born five years and over in the United States, 83 percent spoke a language other than English at home. This included 52.3 percent who spoke Spanish, 21.9 percent who spoke other Indo-European languages, 21.6 percent who spoke Asian and Pacific Island languages, and 4.2 percent who spoke other languages.
In the United States in 2000, of the foreign born five years and over who spoke a language other than English at home, 38.5 percent reported speaking English "very well," 26.3 percent "well," 22.9 percent "not well," and 12.2 percent "not at all."
According to Census 2000, of the foreign born five years and over in the United States who spoke Spanish at home, 52 percent spoke English "very well" or "well." By comparison, 82.4 percent of those who spoke other Indo-European languages, 73.7 percent who spoke Asian languages, and 87.4 percent of those who spoke other languages at home reported speaking English "very well" or "well."
U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 and the 1990 Census of Population and Housing and Gibson, Campbell and Emily Lennon, U.S. Census Bureau, Working Paper No. 29, Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850 to 1990, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1999.