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Study measures impact of recent US immigration

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The influx of 59 million immigrants into the United States in the last 50 years has dramatically changed the nation’s demographics, and immigration in coming decades will continue to alter the racial and ethnic makeup of the U.S. population, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center.

The 128-page report on the impact of modern immigration was released on the anniversary of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, legislation signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson that abolished the old quota system and opened more opportunities to migrants from non-European countries.

Since then, the study shows, the foreign-born share of the U.S. population has increased from 5 to 14 percent, while immigrants and their children today make up more than one-quarter of the entire U.S. population.

Hispanics have grown from 4 percent of the total U.S. population in 1965 to 18 percent today, and Asians from 1 percent to 6 percent today. Whites, meanwhile, have seen their share of the population drop, from 84 percent a half-century ago to 62 percent today.

The number of immigrants and their children will continue to rise in coming decades. According to the report, by 2065, the United States will be home to 78 million immigrants, accounting for 88 percent of the country’s population growth.

“In 50 years, assuming current trends continue, we’ll see a nation that will have no single racial or ethnic majority,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research for the Pew Research Center and the lead author of the report. “It will be one in which whites will be the largest group, Hispanics will make up one-quarter of the nation’s population, Asians, 16 percent of the nation’s population, and African Americans, 12 percent.”

Although nearly half of immigrants living in the United States today are Hispanic, Pew finds that migration from Latin America has slowed as a result of the economic recession and declining fertility rates in Mexico.

“When the downturn in the housing market started in 2006, 2007, we started to see a downturn in Mexican immigration, because many Mexican immigrants were employed in the construction sector,” said Lopez. “Mexico, in the 1970s, had a total fertility rate of seven or more children per woman. Today, it’s more like two. So that means that Mexico has aged. Most immigrants choose to migrate when they’re younger, and that’s why we’ve seen these changes.”

As a result of this decline in migration from Mexico and other Latin American countries, Asians are projected to become the largest immigrant group by the year 2055. Lopez explained that most are coming from China and India for work and educational opportunities, in line with the finding that recent immigrants are more likely than their U.S.-born counterparts to have college and advanced degrees.

New attitudes

Alongside these demographic changes, attitudes towards immigration have also evolved in recent decades. Contrary to much of the political rhetoric today, particularly from Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, the Pew report shows that public attitudes towards immigration have become more positive since the 1990s.

More than half of adults today say that immigrants are strengthening the United States because of their talent and hard work, while 41 percent say immigrants are a burden. Just over 20 years ago, it was the opposite—63 percent of Americans said that immigrants were a burden, while 31 percent said they strengthened the country.

“While the United States is becoming more accepting of immigrants, today only about half of Americans say that immigrants are a strength to the country,” said Lopez. “So while the opinion of many Americans has changed, Americans are still somewhat split on the value of immigration and immigrants to the country.”

This split can be seen in Pew’s polling. While 55 percent of Democrats say that immigrants are making the country better and 24 percent say they’re making the country worse, the numbers are flipped for the GOP. Fifty-three percent of Republicans say that immigrants are making the country worse, while 31 percent say they’re making it better.

Regardless of the parties’ view of immigrants, their swelling numbers will have important political consequences as they and their children register to vote.

“The population projection shows how important immigration is going to be to the nation’s population growth, basically accounting for nearly all of the nation’s population growth between now and 2065,” said Lopez. “While it may very well be that the future demographics and future electorate is more diverse, it remains to be seen how future communities of Asians and Hispanics will decide to vote.”

“At the moment they lean heavily Democratic,” he said, “but there’s no guarantee that will be the case in the future.”