The Decline in Net Migration to the United States
·March 7, 2022
Williams College and the Brookings Institution
About 45 million foreign-born people currently live in the United States, representing about 14% of the US population – a share that is just below the fraction of immigrants living in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. century, when immigration was at its previous all-time high. But net migration to the United States, the change in the number of foreign-born residents, has declined dramatically over the past five years due to Trump administration policies, backlogs, the pandemic and other factors. This slowdown has implications for the number of available workers and fiscal sustainability at a time when the national debt to GDP ratio is the highest since World War II.
Reductions in net immigration to the United States began before the pandemic, declining every year since 2016, when net migration topped 1 million.
- The net number of people migrating to the United States in 2021 was the lowest in decades. Immigrant flows to the United States involve both inflows and outflows of foreign-born people, with many leaving the country after some time (see here). On the net, international migration added 247,000 people to the US population between mid-2020 and mid-2021, according to Census Bureau estimates. This represents a substantial drop from the previous two years, when net migration was 568,000 (for the year ending July 1, 2019) and 477,000 (for the year ending July 1, 2020). The dramatic declines of the past two years were largely due to the pandemic, when two-way migration was restricted for public health reasons and economic downturns limited demand for workers. But reductions in net immigration began before the pandemic, declining every year since 2016, when net migration topped 1 million (see chart).
- Trump administration policies have likely contributed to the drop in migration, but are not the only factor. The administration has taken more than 400 executive actions aimed at reducing immigration, and the full effects of those changes have yet to be felt. However, a report by the Migration Policy Institute points out that the decline of certain categories of immigrants, such as those newly granted lawful permanent residency, began before Trump-era policies took effect. The most direct immediate impact of the Trump administration’s policies has been a sharp reduction in the number of refugees admitted to the United States.
- The direct effect of Trump-era deportations does little to explain the overall drop in the number of migrants. Domestic moves – deportations, which take place within the United States rather than at its borders – can be the result of raids on construction sites, traffic stops or other arrests. The peak number of domestic removals under the Trump administration occurred in fiscal year 2018, with approximately 95,000 deportations. This number is lower than all but two years of the Obama administration. In 2020, deletions fell to 63,000.
- The Trump administration’s policy shifts and anti-immigrant rhetoric may have discouraged some would-be migrants from coming to America. Often, the “chilling effects” of policies can have more impact than the policies themselves. For example, increased immigration enforcement in a region has been associated with reduced employment among some foreign-born residents who are not particularly at risk of deportation; as well as reduced enrollment in government assistance programs, such as food stamps (SNAP), among those who are legally eligible to enroll (see here and here). Although family immigration rules did not change explicitly until 2019, applications to register family members as relatives so that they can apply for family lawful permanent residence have been declining since 2017.
- Delays in the immigration system have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Many people around the world are still interested in coming to America, but the backlog of green card (permanent residency) applications now stands at 9 million. More than half have had their petitions approved and are waiting in the queue. Another half million student, work and travel visas are being delayed due to reduced system capacity. Backlogs in the enforcement system are also significant – 1.6 million people were awaiting a court date at last count.
- The slowdown in immigration has implications for the American workforce and the overall health of the economy. In more typical times, immigrants are particularly sensitive to local economic conditions, helping to supply labor where there is a high demand. While it is difficult to separate the impact of immigration slowdowns from the many other disruptions to the economy, it is almost certain that low levels of migrant inflows are exacerbating current labor shortages. With an aging US population and birth rates below two-child replacement levels, immigrants and their children and grandchildren have been responsible for the majority of US population growth in recent decades. In addition, the financial health of Social Security and Medicare, as well as the ability to care for the elderly, will be strained without continued positive growth in the US population. A 2017 report by the National Academies of Sciences concluded that immigrants tend to contribute more to overall government revenue than they receive in government services, especially when taking into account the contributions of immigrant children during of their life (see here).
Although migration levels are likely to rebound after the pandemic, the delayed effects of Trump-era policies and administrative backlogs may mean a slow and less than full recovery. The long-term indirect “chilling effects” of Trump-era rhetoric and politics remain unclear. These factors could have significant implications for labor markets and the fiscal health of the US economy.