U.S. Foreign Born by World Region of Birth

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U.S. Foreign Born by World Region of Birth


By: Luke J. Larsen

Date: August 2003

Source: Adapted by Thomson Gale from: Larsen, Luke J. The Foreign-Born Population in the U.S.: 2003. U.S. Census Bureau, August 2003.

About the Author: Luke J. Larsen is a researcher in the U.S. Census Bureau, a division of the United States Department of Commerce.


In March 2003, according to official statistics based on the Continuous Population Survey (CPS), 11.7 percent of the population of the United States, or 33.5 million in total, were foreign-born. Of these, 53.3 percent had been born in Latin America, 25 percent had been born in Asia, 13.7 percent in Europe and 8 percent in other parts of the world. Among those born in Latin America, more than two-thirds were from Central America, including Mexico, and these accounted for more than a third of all the foreign born.

The Current Population Survey is a monthly sample survey of around fifty thousand U.S. households, conducted by the Bureau of the Census. Its main purpose is to collect employment-related data to feed into labor market policies, but the survey also generates information on the demographic characteristics of the U.S. population, including its composition by country of birth and ethnicity.

The distribution of the population by country of birth is a reflection of recent patterns of immigration to the United States. These are determined by a range of factors, including U.S. immigration policies, social and economic conditions in countries of origin, geographical proximity, and traditional linkages between these countries and the U.S. The main developments over the past few decades have been a significant decline in the numbers of European immigrants, a massive, ongoing increase in immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries, and a significant increase in immigration from Asian countries. Overall, the developments can be attributed largely to the impact of changes in U.S. immigration policy, but they have also been influenced by conditions in the countries of origin and other factors.

Between 1929 and 1968, patterns of immigration to the United States had been shaped to a large extent by the National Origins Act, which imposed quotas on the number of immigrants from different countries. Within the quota system, relatively more immigrants were allowed from countries in the western hemisphere than from those in the eastern hemisphere. The 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which came into force in 1968, abolished the national origins quota system and sought to equalize the number of immigrants to the U.S. from the Western and Eastern hemispheres. Within the overall ceiling of immigrant visas allocated to each hemisphere, there were no longer any numerical limits for nationals of individual countries. The Act also introduced a preference system for use in prioritizing applications for entry, which emphasized the importance of family reunification over other reasons for applying. Moreover, the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens could be granted entry outside the quota system.

The 1965 Act had the effect of substantially increasing overall numbers of immigrants to the U.S. and changing the distribution of immigrants by national origin. By this time, immigration from Europe had declined significantly for reasons largely unrelated to immigration policies. Standards of living in European countries had increased in the post-war years and there was no longer much incentive for their nationals to emigrate. On the other hand, high levels of poverty and unemployment in Latin American countries, particularly Mexico, and their geographical proximity to the U.S. created a high level of demand for entry into the U.S. This was unleashed when the 1965 Act abolished national quotas, leading to a surge in levels of immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries at this time. The lifting of quotas and the equalization of ceilings between the two hemispheres also led to a significant increase in immigration from Asian countries, especially China and the Philippines, although the overall numbers of immigrants from Asia were much lower than from Latin America. The Asian immigrant community was further increased by refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Kampuchea at the time of the Vietnam War in the late 1970s, as well as by developments in U.S. refugee policies, which meant that refugees could become eligible for permanent residence after living in the United States for two years. Asians have also entered the U.S. in significant numbers as students—many have subsequently converted to permanent residence status, mainly under the occupational preference categories of the immigration acts, which allow entry to professionals and other highly qualified immigrants.

Other significant immigration policy developments have included the merging of the hemispherical quotas into one annual worldwide limit on immigration and the introduction of new quotas of twenty thousand visas to every country. Finally, in 1990, "diversity visas" were created that were intended to increase immigration from countries that were traditionally main sources of emigration to the U.S. but had been adversely affected by the 1965 Act, including some European countries. These developments have not had a major impact on the overall distribution of the foreign-born in the U.S. population, which had been established largely by the 1965 act. However, the continuing emphasis in immigration policy on family reunification has meant that existing communities have continued to expand as family members have joined the original immigrants. Moreover, the numbers of foreign born from Latin America, especially Mexico, was boosted in 1989 when the Legalization Program of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 created an amnesty for thousands of undocumented migrants already residing in the U.S., allowing them to become legal residents.



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Recent patterns of immigration to the U.S. have resulted in the creation of a large foreign-born population that is ethnically and culturally quite different from traditional immigrants to the United States. In the past, these were mainly European nationals who were relatively easily assimilated into American society.

In contrast, recent immigrants have tended to be more ethnically distinct from the native-born population and many have wanted to emphasize their own ethnic and cultural identities. Moreover, although some immigrants are highly skilled and well-educated, the majority of recent entrants have been low-skilled immigrants from poor countries, who have come on family reunification visas. This has had an impact on the overall socio-economic distribution of the U.S. population and significant policy implications in a wide range of areas including education, employment, and welfare.

The ethnic diversity of the foreign-born enriches the cosmopolitan nature of U.S. society, but also means that the foreign-born are a more visible group, easily targeted by those opposed to increased immigration, and this creates potential for social and political unrest. In 2005–2006, there were heightened concerns about rapidly increasing levels of both legal and illegal immigration, particularly from Mexico and other Latin American countries. This resulted in clashes of pro-immigration and anti-immigration campaigners in demonstrations across the country.



Segal, Uma A. A Framework for Immigration: Asians in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Tichenor, Daniel, J. Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Yang, Philip Q. Post-1965 Immigration to the United States: Structural Determinants. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1995.


Hochschild, Jennifer, L. "Looking Ahead: Racial Trends in the United States." Daedalus 134 (2005).

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U.S. Foreign Born by World Region of Birth