Business

05.18.13

U.S. is Just Average as a Destination for Immigrants

We like to think that the United States is unique among nations in the way it attracts and integrates immigrant. But in our increasingly globalized and prosperous world, the data suggests America is just average.

American exceptionalism has become a theme of our immigration debate. From both sides, we hear that America is a uniquely desirable place that, for good or ill, draws an outsized share of the world’s immigrants.

That may have been true a century ago, when Ellis Island welcomed the world’s huddled masses. But it’s not true today. Large-scale immigration is a worldwide phenomenon tied to contemporary globalization. Porous borders and rising education levels have allowed tens of millions of people in developing societies to become more mobile, and new communications and transportation technologies give everyone access to information about other countries and ways to get there. Perhaps most important, rising global demand has created vast new opportunities for foreign labor – whether it’s to bolster shrinking labor pools across much of Europe, provide services in thinly-populated, oil-rich countries in the Middle East, or cater to wealthy global elites in dozens of tax havens.

So, despite dire warnings that U.S. immigration reform will set off another invasion of America by new immigrants, the data show that many other countries are stronger magnets for foreign workers than the United States.  In fact, when it comes to foreign-born residents, America looks fairly average.

It is true that, in absolute numbers, more foreign-born people live in America today than anywhere else. But that’s mainly because we are a very large country, with more native-born people as well than anywhere except China and India. And most of our immigrants came here with our permission: Two-thirds of all foreign-born people living in the United States are naturalized citizens or legal permanent resident aliens, and another 4 percent have legal status as temporary migrants. That leaves about 30 percent who are undocumented.  

Consider the percentages of foreign-born residents living today in various nations: America, with just under 13 percent of its population foreign-born, according to U.N. data, ranks 40th in the world for immigrants as a share of the population.  By contrast, across the 10 most immigrant-intensive countries, foreign-born people account for between 77 percent and 42 percent of their total populations. 

Austria, Ireland, New Zealand and Norway also lead the United States in immigrants as a share of their populations, as do the smaller and less-advanced nations of Estonia, Latvia, Belize, Ukraine, Croatia, and Cyprus.

These unusually high proportions of immigrants appear to be generally linked to global trade and finance. In the top 10, for example, we first set aside the special cases of Macau and Hong Kong, whose Chinese populations are counted as foreign-born, and Vatican City. Of the remaining seven nations, four are in the Middle-East – Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain – where tens of thousands of foreign workers are needed to help meet global demand for oil and provide services for native populations who have grown wealthy off of their oil. The other three countries in the top 10 are global tax havens and financial centers – Andorra, Monaco, and Singapore -- that draw thousands of global elites followed by foreign workers to provide their services.

The next 10 most immigrant-heavy countries, where foreign-born persons comprise between 42 percent and 22 percent of their populations, include five more tax havens (Nauru in Micronesia, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, San Marino, and Switzerland) and three more oil rich countries (Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Brunei). The two others in this group are the special cases of Israel, where Jewish national identity is the draw, and Jordan, home to hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the Iraqi and Israel-Arab conflicts.

Beyond the top 20 countries for foreign-born residents, numerous other nations that more closely resemble the United States, in economic opportunities and social benefits, also draw immigrants in greater relative numbers than America. For example, some 19 percent to 20 percent of the populations of Australia and Canada are foreign-born, compared to our 13 percent. Austria, Ireland, New Zealand and Norway also lead the United States in immigrants as a share of their populations, as do the smaller and less-advanced nations of Estonia, Latvia, Belize, Ukraine, Croatia, and Cyprus. A similar pattern emerges from OECD data covering 25 industrialized countries from 2001 to 2010.  Over that decade, the share of the American population born somewhere else has averaged 12.1 percent.  By this measure, the United States trails not only such countries as Australia, Austria, Canada, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Israel, as noted above, but also Sweden, Germany, and Belgium. 

This pattern also does not change much when we look at the most recent, annual “net migration rates” of various countries (2012).  That’s a standard demographic measure calculated by taking the number of people coming into a country, less the number of people who leave, and dividing by 1,000.  Using that measure, the United States ranked 26th in the world. At 3.6 net immigrants per-1,000 in 2012, we trail far behind three oil-rich countries averaging 24.1 net immigrants per-1,000 (Qatar, UAE, and Bahrain), 13 tax havens averaging 10.8 per-1,000 (from the British Virgin Islands and the Isle of Man, to the Cayman Islands and Luxembourg), and two countries that have become sanctuaries for refugees (Botswana and Djibouti at 14.9 per 1,000).  In addition, at least four other advanced countries also had much higher net migration rates last year -- Australia, Canada, Spain and Italy, averaging 5.3 net immigrants per-1,000 or a rate nearly 50 percent higher than for the United States.

Given the role of labor demand in migration flows and the particular demand in the United States for skilled workers, it is also unsurprising that, according to the Census Bureau, almost 70 percent of foreign-born people residing here, by age 25 or older, are high school graduates.  In fact, nearly 30 percent hold college degrees, the same share as native-born Americans. On the less-skilled part of the distribution, of course, we find many undocumented male immigrants.  But as we showed in a 2011 analysis for NDN and the New Politics Institute, undocumented male immigrants also have the highest labor participation rates in the country:  Among men age 18 to 64 years, 94 percent of undocumented immigrants work or actively seek work, compared to 83 percent of native-born Americans, and 85 percent of immigrants with legal status.

On balance, the data show that the United States is not home to an unusually large share of immigrants, legal and otherwise. As globalization has increased the demand for labor in dozens of countries while lowering the barriers to people moving to other places for work, America has become fairly average as a worldwide destination.