The Pew Research Center on Monday released a “statistical portrait” of the United States’ foreign-born population that turns out to be a rather different picture than the one most Americans envision, and far different from the one most of our presidential candidates paint on the campaign trail.
According to Pew, even as unauthorized immigration has become a litmus-test issue for many voters, it has been on the decline.
The U.S. unauthorized immigrant population peaked at 12.2 million in 2007, then rapidly declined to about 11.3 million, where it has remained since 2009. Unauthorized immigration may be a problem, but it is not currently a growing one.
Another common assumption is most immigrants are poor and poorly educated with few skills, which leads to them becoming a drain on social services.
Yet this, too, is increasingly not the case. Since 1990, the percentage of immigrants age 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree has risen from about 10 percent to 16.4 percent. Nearly 12 percent of immigrants have a post-graduate degree.
Then there is the matter of who is coming to America. Increasingly, it’s not people from Latin America.
Since 2005, new arrivals from Latin America — and especially Mexico — have been on the decline. During the same period, new arrivals from Asia have been on the rise. Since 2008, new arrivals from Asia have outnumbered those from Latin America. If current trends continue, Asian immigrants will outnumber Latin American immigrants in the U.S. by 2055.
Presidential candidates who speak of immigrants as invaders and talk about building walls along the U.S./Mexico border to keep them out are not only misguided, they’re behind the times. Perhaps next they will suggest building a wall along the West Coast?
One can be forgiven for wondering if it’s the race of certain immigrants, rather than their number or legal status, driving America’s recent upswing in anti-immigration politics.
The Pew report does indicate a few areas that need attention. Since 1980, English-language proficiency among U.S. immigrants has declined from 57.2 percent to 50.4 percent in 2013, although that is up from a low of 48.4 percent in 2010. This has occurred even as immigrant educational attainment has increased, which hints at a class divide among the immigrant population that may mirror the one among native-born Americans. If so, we’re all in the same boat.
Pew’s research shows us that much of what we think we know about immigration is simply wrong. If we hope to move the immigration debate away from demagoguery and toward something more productive, the first thing we need to do is get our facts straight.