Share of US population born abroad hits a 108-year peak, with more coming from Asia

Korean-language newspapers are seen outside a strip mall in Buena Park, California, on April 15, 2018.
Korean-language newspapers are seen outside a strip mall in Buena Park, California, on April 15, 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The foreign-born population in the United States has reached its highest share since 1910, according to government data released on Thursday (Sept 13), and the new arrivals are more likely to come from Asia and to have college degrees than those who arrived in past decades.

The Census Bureau's figures for 2017 confirm a major shift in who is coming to the United States.

For years, newcomers tended to be from Latin America, but a Brookings Institution analysis of that data shows that 41 per cent of the people who said they arrived since 2010 came from Asia, while 39 per cent were from Latin America. About 45 per cent were college educated, the analysis found, compared with about 30 per cent of those who came between 2000 and 2009.

"This is quite different from what we had thought," said senior demographer William Frey at the Brookings Institution who conducted the analysis.

"We think of immigrants as being low-skilled workers from Latin America, but for recent arrivals, that's much less the case. People from Asia have overtaken people from Latin America," he added.

The foreign-born population stood at 13.7 per cent in 2017, or 44.5 million people, compared with 13.5 per cent in 2016.

The last historic peak in immigration to the United States came around the turn of the 20th century, when the total foreign-born population stood at nearly 15 per cent. By 1970, the population was below 5 per cent.

For many years, Mexico was the single largest contributor of immigrants. But since 2010, the increase in the number of people from Asia - 2.6 million - was more than double the 1.2 million who came from Latin America, Dr Frey found.

Some of the largest gains were in states with the smallest immigrant populations. New York and California both had increases of less than 6 per cent since 2010. But foreign-born populations rose by 20 per cent in Tennessee, 13 per cent in Ohio, 12 per cent in South Carolina and 20 per cent in Kentucky over the same period.

North Dakota had the single largest increase in foreign-born residents since 2010, with the number going up by 87 per cent.

Mr Emmanuel D'Souza, a nurse practitioner in Dayton, Ohio, who emigrated from India in 2004, said he has noticed a growing and thriving Indian population in his area.

"Now when you go to the grocery store at five or six in the evening, you see a lot of Indian people, buying vegetables after work," said Mr D'Souza.

He said he saw fewer Indian people when he bought his house in 2009 than he does today. Now he counted at least four temples and two mosques, and said there are two Indian specialty grocery stores. Mr D'Souza, 41, who is Catholic, also sees Indians in church on Sundays.

The data also suggests a political pattern among states with large percentages of foreign-born residents. Of the 15 states with the highest concentration of immigrants, all but three - Florida, Texas and Arizona - voted for Mrs Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. Many of the states with low and moderate concentrations of foreign-born people voted for Mr Trump, according to Dr Frey found.

Data scientist Chao Wu from Columbia, Maryland, who came from China in 2003, said he had long known about Asian graduate students in the United States, because he had been one. But it was not until he started running for a seat on his county's board of education that he noticed the richness and variation in the population.

"I increased my outreach and I realised there was a big Asian-American business community, with restaurants and grocery stores," he said. He said he recently helped organise a ceremony in his town with a sister city in China. A portion of Route 40 was renamed Korean Way.

But the rising levels of education are not lifting everyone. Asian-Americans are now the most economically divided racial or ethnic group in the country, according to a Pew Research Centre analysis. Income inequality among Asian-Americans nearly doubled from 1970 to 2016.

While people from Asia make up the largest share of recent newcomers, a majority of the country's total foreign-born population is still from Latin America - 50 per cent, compared to 31 per cent from Asia.

North Dakota had the single largest percentage increase in foreign-born residents since 2010, Dr Frey said, with the number going up by 87 per cent.

"There is more diversity now," said Dr Fadel Nammour, a gastroenterologist in Fargo, North Dakota, who moved to the United States from Lebanon in 1996.

"You can tell by food. There are Indian places that opened up. We have an African place now. Little things that are a little bit different."