China surpasses Mexico as Largest Contributor to US Immigration

The Census Bureau does great research based on its well-designed nationally representative surveys like the American Community Survey (ACS). One of the bureau’s latest findings is that immigration to the US from China has exceeded immigration from Mexico. The data is (are?) good. The findings are statistically significant. However, some perspective is needed.

Caveat: Yes, all estimates of immigration to the US raise the question “Was illegal immigration included in the analysis?” Well, yes, in this case, mostly. The Census Bureau interviewers do not report on legality of entrance or proper documentation. When the interviewer comes to your door, you either cooperate or refuse. End of story. My take is that a reasonable proportion of “undocumented” folks cooperate in one form or another. Not all, of course, but some.

Numberwise what’s going on? Annual Mexican immigration in 2004 was at least 400,000. That dropped to less than 150,000 by 2011 and to about 125,000 in 2013, the latest data point in this analysis.

Key point: Immigration from Mexico dropped significantly when the US economy hit the skids AND border enforcement under the Obama administration was cranked up in 2009. Note also that the decline in immigration from Mexico fell steadily even after the US economy started to recover.

Population of China in 2014: 1.4 billion (thank you, Population Reference Bureau)

Population of Mexico in 2014: 120 million (thank you, Population Reference Bureau)

Take away one: China has 12 times the potential “sending population” as Mexico. Another reason to learn Chinese as well as Spanish.

International migration is driven by conditions at home and opportunities in all possible destinations – push-pull as they say in graduate school. Plus, the distance (and cost) of migration.

Cool fact: India’s population is projected to surpass China’s in 15 years; let’s say 2030.

Take-away two: Yes, immigration to the US from China surpassed immigration from Mexico at about 150,000 from China versus 125,000 from Mexico in 2013. But that’s mostly because immigration from Mexico is DOWN from 400,000 in 2004 due to economic conditions and border enforcement. Immigration from China is on a slow increase.

What does the future hold? Thanks for asking! I think a slow, steady increase in US-destination immigration from China is inevitable. Immigration from Mexico to the US will be more cyclical depending on comparative economic conditions in both countries and border enforcement. Although, truth be told, the key to “border enforcement” is technological advancements in “employer sanctions.” Like (as they say): "OK, great, you can do this. May I have your Social Security number please?" It’s totally not about boots-on-the-ground at the Rio Grande, except for Central American children (see my blog post below, actually my first blog post).

The larger question is the multiplicity of global sending countries and the crafting of a fair and far-reaching new immigration law that takes into account the full complexity of potential legal and undocumented immigration to the US in the future. And the elephant in the room: the 12 million undocumented immigrants already here who basically support our economy and will pay into the Social Security system and support me, my children, and themselves. Hey, let’s put our faith in the US Congress!

Tom Exter1 Comment