Examining Immigration's Pause

by Audrey Singer | September 30, 2009

For the past decade or so, every time the US Census Bureau released new data, headlines would blare “Immigration Up in the US.”  More recent headlines have been hopeful: “Immigration offers Cleveland a chance to import the future.” Others wistful: “Current waves of immigrants offer hope for St. Louis' future.” But mostly, they just repeatedly announced that immigrants were still coming to the United States in large numbers. “Area Immigration Booming; Census Finds Steady Flow Despite Economy, 9/11 (2004),” “Census Shows Growth of Immigrants (2006),” and “Immigration at Record Levels (2007)”Wikicommons

So it may have surprised some then, when new data from the Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey released last week showed that the U.S. foreign-born population dropped during the Great Recession of 2008, after 40 years of sustained growth. Those from the restrictionist camp would like to claim enforcement is working. Others wonder if the drop means more immigrants are emigrating or if just fewer are coming.

While the net decrease in the national immigrant population is small at around 100,000 (and it is not statistically significant for those who care), it does signal a leveling off or decline in the immigration flow.

We tend to focus on immigration flows because they represent what is currently happening (or what has just happened). However, from the perspective of local places, what matters over the longer-term is the growth and change to the stock of immigrant population. Since the 1990s, for example, major shifts in where immigrants settled re-mapped the issue from one affecting a handful of large metropolitan areas to many new places across the country

The new ACS estimates are for a single year (2008), hardly enough time to constitute a trend. We should understand the new statistics as possible indicators of trends as we look ahead. So here’s what caught my eye among metropolitan areas.

Weathering the recession?

Texas has been performing relatively well during the recession and five out of the 6 Texas metro areas in the list of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan are still boosting their immigrant population, with Houston and Dallas-Ft Worth ranking 2nd and 3rd respectively in terms of absolute increases (each gaining approximately 30,000), and Austin ranking 8th with an increase of approximately 13,000.

In addition, metropolitan Atlanta has had one of the fastest, sustained increases in immigration since the 1990s. It led the list in terms of absolute growth between 2007 and 2008, with an increase of about 40,000 foreign-born residents. Western metros Portland, Seattle, and Denver also posted positive growth.

Immigration U-Turn?

Quite a few metro areas grew very quickly in the run up to the Great Recession. Many of them attracted immigrants in large numbers. As these places tumble, not surprisingly, they have lost population. Several metro areas that emerged rapidly as important immigrant gateways only in the 1990s have just seen their immigrant population growth turn negative after many years of “off-the-chart” increases. Phoenix, a high-growth immigrant gateway since the 1990s, lost 53,000 immigrants between 2007 and 2008. 

Other areas with recent and fast growth lost immigrants as well: Riverside (-17,000), San Jose (-10,000), the Twin Cities (-8,000), and Las Vegas (-5,000). 

Holding Steady?

Some relative new destinations for immigration, such as Charlotte, Raleigh, and Salt Lake City are still posting positive inflows, adding to the still relatively rapidly growing base of immigrant newcomers.  Likewise Orlando, Sacramento, and Philadelphia experienced little net change to their stock between 2007 and 2008.

Other than Los Angeles which lost the most immigrants of any metro area (113,000), all of the largest gateways (New York, Chicago, Miami, and San Francisco) remained basically unchanged with regard to their immigrant population, during the past year.

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Once recovery begins across metropolitan areas, immigrant workers will likely be in demand again across various industrial sectors including service, health care, and construction. It’s unclear what restructured economies may look like in some places, but for many current trends may be a momentary blip in the flow of immigrants.

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