Brookings Institution: “A dozen facts about immigration"

by Joseph McKeown


The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., has released a report about immigration in the US. The document, an update of a previously published report, aims to provide economic facts about the role of immigration in the US economy and discusses patterns of recent immigration (including levels, legal status, country of origin, and US state of residence), characteristics of immigrants (including education, occupations, and employment), and the effects of immigration on the economy (economic output, wages, innovation, fiscal resources, and crime).

The report notes that the US “has been shaped by successive waves of immigration from the arrival of the first colonists through the present day” and immigration “has wide-ranging impacts on society and culture, and its economic effects are no less substantial.” Additionally, the report notes: “Immigration policy is often hotly debated for a variety of reasons that have little to do with a careful assessment of the evidence.” The report aims to put “forward this set of facts to help provide an evidence base for policy discussions that is derived from data and research.”

In 2017 immigrants, the report says, made up nearly fourteen percent of the US population, a big increase from historically low rates of the 1960s and 1970s, but a level that was often reached in the 19th century. Because of low birth rates for native-born Americans, immigrants and their children now “provide essentially all the net prime-age population growth in the United States.”

Three highlights from the twelve facts about immigration:

  • Eighty percent of immigrants today originate from Asia or Latin America, while in 1910 more than eighty percent came from Europe

    The countries of origin of immigrants to the US has changed dramatically over the past century. The vast majority of immigrants in the early 20th century came from Europe, including Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Today, nearly sixty percent of the foreign-born emigrated either from Mexico or Asian countries. Among Asian immigrants, India and China now account for the largest share (6.5 and 4.7 percent of all immigrants, respectively). Early 20th century immigrants and many of those coming to the US now have been drawn to strong economic opportunities in the US.

  • Economic output is higher and grows faster with immigrants

    Researchers and analysts broadly agree that immigration raises total economic output. More workers in the labor force increases the productive capacity of the US economy. According to one estimate, the total annual contribution of foreign-born workers is approximately $2 trillion, about ten percent of the annual GDP.

  • High-skilled immigration increases innovation

    On the whole, immigrants are more likely to possess college and advanced degrees, and also more likely to work in STEM fields, all which leads to more immigrant contributions to innovation. One measure of this is the acquisition of patents. Although immigrants make up only eighteen percent of the twenty-five and older workforce, they obtain twenty-eight percent of high-quality patents, and immigrants are also more likely to become Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry, physiology, or medicine.

The report notes: “These basic facts suggest that immigrants are taking on a larger role in the U.S. economy…However, despite the size of the foreign-born population, immigrants tend to have relatively small impacts on the wages of native-born workers. At the same time, immigrants generally have positive impacts on both government finances and the innovation that leads to productivity growth.”