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In Historic Shift, New Migration Flows from Mexico Fall Below Those from China and India

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In Historic Shift, New Migration Flows from Mexico Fall Below Those from China and India

Indian nationals received nearly 70 percent of H-1B visas for specialty occupations such as computer programmers in FY 2014. Both China and India have overtaken Mexico as the top source countries of recent immigrants to the United States. (Photo: Saad Akhtar)

For the first time in decades, Mexico is no longer the top source of recent immigrants to the United States, having been overtaken by China and India. The historic shift that occurred in 2013, documented in a recent U.S. Census Bureau study, reflects an acceleration of Chinese and Indian immigration over the last decade, and is the latest sign that large-scale Mexican migration to the United States—once taken for granted—appears to be winding down. The new prominence of Asian migration may herald a significant and long-term transition in the demographics of future U.S. immigration.

Of the 1.2 million recent immigrants counted in 2013, China was the leading country of origin, with 147,000, followed by India with 129,000, and Mexico with 125,000. The margins among the three countries have narrowed in recent years. In 2012, Mexico was the source of 125,000 recent immigrants, China 124,000, and India 113,000. The Census Bureau defines recent immigrants as foreign-born individuals who resided abroad one year ago, including lawful permanent residents, temporary nonimmigrants, and unauthorized immigrants.

The shift in top migration source countries is remarkable because it happened so rapidly. Less than a decade ago, recent immigrants from Mexico outnumbered those from China and India, each by sixfold. Even as Chinese and Indian migration has risen steadily, Mexican flows have declined much more swiftly (see Figure 1). Still, the current composition of U.S. immigrants reflects earlier flows: Mexicans, who represent 11.6 million of the 41.3 million foreign born in the United States, remain by far the largest group. In comparison, there are 2 million immigrants from India and 1.8 million from China.

Figure 1. Recent Mexican, Chinese, and Indian Immigrant Populations (with Residence Abroad One Year Ago), 2000-13

Notes: It was only in 2006 that the American Community Survey (ACS) began including people living in group quarters. The time series from 2000 to 2005 represents immigration for the household population while subsequent years cover immigration for the resident population.
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, 2000 to 2013 Single-Year American Community Survey (ACS); Eric Jensen, “China Replaces Mexico as the Top Sending Country for Immigrants to the United States,” Research Matters, U.S. Census Bureau, May 1, 2015, http://researchmatters.blogs.census.gov/2015/05/01/china-replaces-mexico-as-the-top-sending-country-for-immigrants-to-the-united-states/.

What Has Contributed to the Rise in Asian Immigration?

Migration from Asian countries has been steadily rising, with China and India leading the trend. In the last decade alone, the number of recent Chinese immigrants has nearly tripled, while Indian immigration has more than doubled.

Myriad push and pull factors have driven this upswing. Since 1970, the United States has transitioned from a manufacturing economy to an increasingly service-based one. As part of this shift, the information technology sector has grown, driving demand for high-skilled labor. In recent years, China and India have dominated many student and employment-based visa categories, both permanent and temporary. Foreign students with U.S. qualifications become natural recruits for high-skilled temporary worker programs, which, in turn, are important sources of employer-sponsored legal permanent immigration. Since employment-based immigrants do not rely on U.S. family ties for their sponsorship, they become potent new seed immigrants for further future immigration by sponsoring their families to join them in the United States.

In the current fiscal year, China and India are the top countries of origin for all international students in the country, with China alone accounting for one-third (331,000 out of 1.13 million). Indian and Chinese nationals are also the most common beneficiaries of the two main nonimmigrant work visas: the H-1B visa for specialty occupations (such as scientists, engineers, and computer programmers), and L-1 visas for intracompany managers, executives, and employees with specialized knowledge. Indian nationals were approved for nearly 70 percent of H-1B petitions and 30 percent of L-1 petitions in fiscal year (FY) 2014. China was the second most prevalent nationality among approved H-1B petitions, accounting for about 10 percent. India and China were also, by far, the top sending sources of new legal permanent residents (LPRs) admitted through employment-based visa categories, together comprising more than one-third in FY 2013. In a striking example, Chinese nationals have received more than 80 percent of EB-5 visas for immigrant investors in most recent years. On the other end of the spectrum, China was also the leading country of origin for individuals granted asylum in the United States, accounting for 34 percent in FY 2013.

Under U.S. law, LPRs can sponsor spouses, minor children, and unmarried adult children for permanent residency. After becoming a citizen (which takes three to five years), an individual can also sponsor their parents, married adult children, and siblings. Although Congress has placed yearly numerical limits on some of these channels, family-based admissions annually account for two-thirds of all U.S. legal immigration. Though the family-based admissions system has been part of U.S. immigration law since 1952, China and India were effectively barred from taking advantage of it until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended the national-origins quota system first established in 1921. Thus, it is only since 1965 that Chinese and Indian migration has risen—first gradually and then exponentially (see Figure 2).

Immigration to the United States has also been spurred by a series of push factors in Asia. China and India are the world’s most populous countries, and are becoming increasingly integrated into the global economy. As their national economies have grown, per capita incomes have risen—along with access to global travel and means to pay for education abroad. For China in particular, significant emigration has occurred only since the government liberalized travel for its citizens in the 1980s after the United States and China normalized diplomatic relations in 1979.

Why Is Mexican Immigration Declining?

Immigration from Mexico has dropped even more precipitously than immigration from China and India has risen. The number of recent immigrants from Mexico fell from 369,000 in 2005 to 125,000 in 2013, a 66 percent reduction in just eight years, according to the Census Bureau study. While legal immigration from Mexico declined slowly from 161,000 in FY 2005 to 135,000 in FY 2013, illegal migration fell much more rapidly. Southwest border apprehensions of Mexican nationals, which indicate patterns of illegal entries, topped 1 million in FY 2005, falling to a historic low of 229,000 in FY 2014.

A coincidental alignment of economic and demographic factors in both countries has spurred the decline in illegal immigration from Mexico. In the United States, the Great Recession significantly weakened the economy, and in particular depressed demand for low-wage workers, in construction and also in agriculture and other sectors that traditionally employ Mexican unauthorized workers. Equally important, the United States has significantly strengthened the immigration enforcement system in the past decade, making it more risky and costly to cross the border, and by deporting unauthorized immigrants quickly and in record numbers.

In Mexico, demographic and economic changes have also altered migration dynamics. First, declining birthrates have resulted in a shrinking pool of potential migrants. The Mexican economy has meanwhile strengthened and stabilized in recent years, creating new job opportunities. And the country has greatly expanded its educational system, providing young Mexicans who want to improve their lives with viable alternatives to migrating north.

Future Immigration Patterns

While the realignment of top migrant-source countries represents an important milestone, its effects on the stock of U.S. immigrants will not be felt for some time. Still, over the coming decades, immigration from India and China is likely to further outpace new Mexican inflows, as the two largest Asian countries continue to dominate employment-based channels, which in turn lays the ground for new family-based immigration. Based on these trends, the Chinese and Indian immigrant populations will—in the long run—begin to catch up with the Mexican immigrant population, especially if the current decline in Mexican unauthorized flows persists.  

Figure 2. Mexican, Chinese, and Indian Immigrant Populations in the United States, 1960-2013

Source: Migration Policy Institute tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 and 2013 American Community Surveys, and 2000 Decennial Census. Data for 1960 to 1990 are from Campbell J. Gibson and Emily Lennon, "Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850 to 1990" (Working Paper No. 29, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 1999), www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/us-immigration-trends.

Despite China’s recent gains, immigration from India is likely to grow even more quickly. Indian immigrants already outnumber those from China and therefore have slightly more potential to increase their numbers through family-based channels. Some basic demographics also reinforce India’s advantage. The average size of a Chinese family is 3.02 people, according to the Chinese National Health and Family Planning Commission, largely to due China’s “one-child” policy instituted in the 1980s. The average size of an Indian family, on the other hand, is 5.3 people, per the Indian census. While China’s population is aging, India’s population is relatively young and continues to grow (47 percent of the population is younger than 25, compared to 32 percent for China). Indeed, by 2028, India is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country. Moreover, diaspora research has shown that China is more successful in attracting return migration, while Indian nationals who are educated and gain work experience in the United States are more likely to stay permanently.

Potential Impacts of Current Immigration Policy Debates

Despite years of congressional gridlock on immigration, there has been considerable bipartisan consensus for an overhaul of the legal immigration system. Legislative proposals to increase the number of permanent resident visas, especially in employment-based categories, including for immigrant investors and entrepreneurs, have gained widespread support. So have proposals for raising the number of H-1B visas for high-skilled specialty workers, currently capped at 85,000 annually and distributed by lottery due to overwhelming demand. Should Congress adopt these or similar proposals, nationals of India and China are likely to benefit the most, as they predominate in current U.S. high-skilled programs. Over the longer term, their growing share of new immigrant flows will eventually create broad changes to the U.S. immigrant population, as well as the overall demographic makeup of the United States.

National Policy Beat in Brief

Lawsuits Prompt ICE to Examine Family Detention Policies. On May 13, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced new oversight measures designed to expand review of whom to detain in immigrant family detention facilities. The agency will implement a new policy of reviewing the case of any family detained beyond 90 days, and every 60 days thereafter, to assess whether detention is appropriate. The general policy of deterrence will no longer be considered a factor in detention decisions for families that have established credible or reasonable fear of persecution if returned to their home countries. Additional measures include steps to consider and implement policy changes, facilitate pro-bono attorneys’ work in family detention centers, and improve access to language services for detainees. The actions come on the heels of multiple lawsuits filed against the Obama administration’s family detention policies, implemented last year after more than 68,000 Central American families were intercepted at the U.S.-Mexico border. Most recently, on April 24, a federal judge in California issued a tentative order finding that family detention violates the 1997 Flores settlement, which governs the treatment of immigrant children in detention. In February, a U.S. District Court judge for the District of Columbia enjoined the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy of using deterrence as a reason for detaining Central American families that have met the credible fear standard. A third lawsuit, concerning a petition circulated by detained immigrant mothers alleging retaliation for protesting detention conditions, is pending in federal court in Texas.

Status and Work Permits Lapse for 11,000 DACA Beneficiaries. More than 11,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiaries who applied within the deadline for renewal of their benefits were not approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) until after their original DACA validity had expired, according to USCIS data released to BuzzFeed News. In addition, 54,000 DACA beneficiaries who did not apply for renewal in time have experienced a similar temporary loss of their benefits. The DACA program, launched in 2012, grants work permits and relief from deportation for two years to certain young unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. The USCIS processing delays have left beneficiaries temporarily without permission to work and at risk of losing their jobs. USCIS attributed the delay in approving timely filed applications to backlogs in securing background clearance. According to the agency, 639,000 initial requests for DACA have been approved along with 148,000 renewals, as of December 2014.

Lawsuit Challenges Employment Authorization for H-1B Spouses. A group called Save Jobs USA filed a lawsuit on April 25 challenging a recently issued DHS regulation—set to take effect on May 26—that would allow certain spouses of H-1B workers (who reside in the United States with H-4 dependent status) to apply for work authorization in the United States. The plaintiff’s complaint seeks to block the regulation, arguing that U.S. workers would be hurt by competition from H-4 workers, thus violating statutory protections for U.S. workers guaranteed in the H-1B program under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Under the rule change, employment authorization would be extended to the spouses of H-1B workers whose petition for a grant of permanent residence through their employment is pending adjudication. The rule would benefit an estimated 179,600 new foreign workers this year and 55,000 annually in subsequent years.

Meanwhile, USCIS has announced that starting on May 26 it will temporarily suspend premium processing for H-1B visa holders seeking an extension of their status so it can focus on implementing the new H-4 rule and adjudicate those cases. Premium processing allows some employment-based visa petitioners and applicants to expedite adjudication of their cases within 15 calendar days for a $1,225 fee.

 State and Local Policy Beat in Brief

Nevada Approves Giving Teaching Licenses to Some Unauthorized Immigrants. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval on May 13 signed into law a measure that will enable immigrants with work permits (who are not U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents) to receive state teaching licenses in school districts with teacher shortages. The new law will effectively apply to beneficiaries of the DACA program, who lack legal status but are protected from deportation and authorized to work legally. The bill removes the prior requirement that a shortage must exist in the subject area of the person requesting a license. Gov. Sandoval said the measure would help meet the needs of a “new Nevada.” Nevada is home to 31,000 potentially eligible DACA beneficiaries, according to Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates.

Los Angeles County Ends Participation in 287(g), Will Collaborate with ICE on New Enforcement Program. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on May 12 voted 3 to 2 to end the county’s participation in the federal 287(g) program, which allows deputized state and local law enforcement agents to perform certain immigration enforcement functions within local jails. The same day, the board passed a separate measure approving cooperation in a different federal immigration enforcement initiative, the Priorities Enforcement Program (PEP). PEP, announced as part of the Obama administration’s November 2014 executive actions, is meant to be a scaled-back version of the Secure Communities program. Secure Communities, once deployed in all U.S. law enforcement jurisdictions, is now being phased out. The program checks the immigration status of arrested and fingerprinted individuals. It also allows ICE to request that inmates suspected of being unauthorized be detained for 48 hours beyond their scheduled release for transfer into ICE custody. Fingerprint checks will continue under PEP, but such detainers will be limited to serious cases of individuals who have been convicted of certain crimes, and jails will now be asked to notify ICE authorities when they intend to release those in their custody.

DACA Beneficiaries to be Eligible for In-State Tuition in Arizona. On May 11, the Arizona State Board of Regents announced that effective immediately, DACA beneficiaries will be eligible to pay in-state tuition rates at public state universities. The policy change came several days after a Maricopa County judge ruled that DACA recipients are eligible for in-state tuition at Maricopa County community colleges. As of December 2014, 23,000 immigrants in Arizona have been granted deportation protection and work authorization under the DACA program. Arizona is home to 66,000 potentially eligible DACA beneficiaries, according to MPI estimates.

Refugees File Class-Action Lawsuit over their Treatment by Utica, NY School District. On April 24, civil liberties groups filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of six refugee students arguing that the Utica, New York school district is unlawfully denying them a normal high school education in violation of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA). The lawsuit alleges that the school district since 2007 has barred newly arrived high-school aged refugees with low English proficiency from high school enrollment, instead placing them in inferior alternative schools that do not grant traditional high-school diplomas. The result effectively deprives the refugees of higher education opportunities offered to the broader student population, the suit charges. The EEOA prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex, ability, and English Language learner status, and school districts are required to take steps to overcome barriers to students' equal participation. The New York State Attorney General has announced an investigation into the allegations.