Statistics Don't Lie: Immigration and Recession

The economic downturn and the September 11 attacks appear to have had no lasting impact on the pace of immigration nationally.

The economic downturn and the September 11 attacks appear to have had no lasting impact on the pace of immigration nationally.

While there is some evidence that immigration may have slowed slightly in 2001, new legal and illegal immigration remain at record-setting levels.  For the most part, immigration appears to be largely unconnected to national or state job markets. Although unemployment has increased significantly overall and among foreign-born immigrants, the pace of legal and  illegal immigration continues to match that of the late 1990s.

* Since 2000, 2.3 million new adult immigrant workers (legal and illegal) have arrived in the United States, almost exactly the same as the 2.2 million who arrived during the three years prior to 2000, despite a dramatic change in economic conditions.

* At the state level, there seems to be no clear relationship between economic conditions and trends in immigration. Immigration levels have matched or exceeded the pace of the late 1990s in Texas, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, Arizona, Washington, North Carolina, Georgia, and New York -- even as all these states experienced a significant increase in unemployment.

* Nationally, about half (1.2 million) of those who arrived in each three-year time period (1997-2000 and 2000-2003) are estimated to be illegal aliens. These figures are only for those in the workforce who were captured in Census Bureau data.

* Looking only at the net increase in employment, the number of foreign-born adults (legal and illegal) holding a job has grown by 1.7 million since 2000, while among natives, the number working actually fell by 800,000.

 * Although the number of foreign-born adults holding a job has increased since 2000, the number unemployed also increased, by 600,000, and the unemployment rate among the foreign-born rose from 4.9 to 7.4 percent.

* It is the very rapid growth in the foreign-born population that makes it possible for the number of immigrants holding jobs and the number unemployed to increase at the same time.

* The total foreign-born population (not just those in the workforce) has  grown by 3.5 million since 2000.

* As a share of the total population, the foreign-born now account for almost one in eight residents of the United States, the highest percentage in more than eight decades.

Immigration is a complex process driven by a variety of factors, many of which have little to do with prevailing economic conditions in the United States.  This does not mean that economic factors are irrelevant.  However, the continued high rates of immigration show that immigration is driven mostly by the higher standard of living in the United States compared to immigrant-sending countries, not by demand for labor in this country.

Indeed, the fact that immigration has not slowed significantly since 2000, even though unemployment has increased significantly, indicates that immigration levels are not primarily driven by the labor needs of the United States. Rather, immigration is a complex process driven by a variety of factors, many of which have little to do with the job market in the United States. It is America's higher standard of living that drives most immigration, and the disparity in living standards does not disappear during downturns in the business cycle.

Given what they face in their home countries, prospective immigrants often feel that even being unemployed or having to rely on assistance from the government or family members in this country is still better than life back home. Therefore, immigration is not a self-regulating process that rises and falls with the economy.  In contrast, during the previous Great Wave of immigration at the turn of the last century, immigration levels were very sensitive to economic conditions in the United States.  This is primarily because the disparity in living standards between the United States and immigrant-sending countries today is much larger than it was in the past. Since it is a government program, immigration could, of course, be reduced by changing the selection criteria for legal immigrants and increasing efforts to enforce the law. So far, however, neither Congress nor the president has chosen to do this.


Steven A. Camarota is the Director of Research at Center for Immigration Reform and the author of its report, "Immigration in a Time of Recession: An Examination of Trends Since 2000," ( from which this essay is adapted.