Current Immigration in Historical Perspective

For those who argue that current immigration is nothing more than a continuation of our traditional admission of immigrants, the following will set the record straight. At no time in our history has there been an influx of illegal immigration like the country is experiencing today. The estimated 850,000 new illegal immigrant arrivals each year is about as large as the highest level of legal immigrant admissions in our history before the current mass immigration was unleashed by the 1965 Immigration Act, i.e., an average of 880,000 admissions per year from 1901-10. When illegal admissions are added to current legal admissions, today’s immigration level jumps to about 1,750,000 per year.1

old peak and current immigration

Those who suggest that the current influx of Mexicans is simply a repetition of other surges in our history such as from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany or Italy should look at the facts. Mexican entries each year are running at about half a million per year (about 220,000 legal admissions and about 380,000 illegal entrants).2 A comparison of that wave of Mexican entries to the largest historical surges from European countries shows how the present influx is unlike any before it.

peak annual average immigration

Ireland’s record decade for immigrants to the United States was 1841-50, the period of the ‘potato famine’ crisis, when the annual average was about 78,000 persons. The top of the scale for entries from the United Kingdom was from 1881-90 when annual admissions averaged less than 81,000 persons. That decade was also the peak entry for Germans, who came at an annual rate of about 105,000 persons. For Italy the country with the highest immigration in our history prior to the current wave of mass immigration the top decade for immigrants was during the “great wave” 1901-10 period when average Italian entries were less than 205,000 per year.

[1] Historical immigrant admissions data are taken from the Statistical Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. The annual average admissions 1991-00 were over 900,000 to which is added the estimated annual influx of illegal immigrants during that period of 850,000 per year (which does not account for the reductions in the illegal alien population that come from deaths, voluntary departures, conversion to legal status and deportations).

[2] The 2002 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, October 2003 notes that the estimated population of Mexicans illegally in the United States increased from about 2 million in 1990 to 4.8 million in 2000, i.e., an annual average increase during that time of 280,000 persons. This was a net increase, and represents an annual average influx of about 380,000 and emigration (deportation plus voluntary return) of about 100,000 persons (see: Bashir Ahmed and J. Gregory Robinson, “Estimates of Emigration of the Foreign-Born Population: 1980-1990, Population Division Working Paper No. 9, U.S. Bureau of the Census, December 1994). That estimate puts Mexican return migration at slightly over 200,000 per year, and half of that amount may be assumed to be among the illegal immigrant population.