After almost a decade of languishing growth, the nation’s immigrant population increased by more than 1 million last year amid stronger job creation in the U.S. and slowing economic activity in other parts of the world.
New government data show there were 42.4 million foreign-born people in the U.S. last year, or 13.3% of the country’s total population. That’s up 1.04 million from 2013, about double the annual growth in recent years.
The sharp increase in immigrants, most of whom came from Asia, contrasts with a small net decrease in immigrants in 2008 during the depths of the Great Recession. The surge has been felt especially in states such as California and Florida.
The upturn comes as illegal immigration becomes a highly contentious issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, with many conservatives in particular expressing concerns about the social and economic costs.
Paradoxically, ferment over illegal immigration rose in the last few years even as immigration numbers remained relatively low. The issue draws strength, in part, from voter concerns over stagnant wages, which some link to immigrants competing for jobs, as well as from worries over rapid changes in American culture and society.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump has made immigration a signature issue, vowing to block illegal immigration from Mexico and deport all immigrants who are in the country without documentation, but also proposing measures to reduce legal immigration, including a cutback in the H1-B visas widely used by technology companies to bring in foreign job candidates.
Some other Republican candidates also have called for cutbacks in legal immigration, at least until the wages of average workers begin to rise. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, has opposed such ideas, saying legal immigrants are key to raising the country’s economic growth rate.
The subject, which used to divide both parties, has become more sharply partisan in recent years. Since 2002, the share of Democrats who see immigrants, both legal and illegal, as a major problem for the country has declined, according to polls, but the percentage among Republicans has remained high.
A recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for example, found that almost two-thirds of Republicans saw “large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the U.S.” as a “critical threat” to the country. Among Democrats, slightly more than 1 in 4 took that position.
The Census Bureau’s data include all foreign-born people in the U.S. without regard to their legal status. But since studies by Pew Research suggest that the population of immigrants here has flattened in recent years, illegal immigration probably had little to do with last year’s overall increase.
Much more likely, experts say, is that more foreign-born people — many with advanced degrees as well as those with less education — arrived in the U.S. or decided to stay in the country longer, seeing greater opportunities in an American economy that generated more than 3 million jobs in 2014.
Large-scale immigration has been known to intensify job competition mainly for lower-skilled jobs. But experts see a big plus for the U.S. economy in its ability to attract people with a broad range of education and skills from abroad, especially when the domestic labor force is growing weakly because of the accelerating retirement of baby boomers and the declining birth rate. About half of the immigrants are 18 to 44 years of age, compared with 35% for natives, according to a Census Bureau report on 2010 data.
“It’s a ray of hope that the economy is bringing more immigrants to the U.S.,” said William Frey, the Brookings Institution demographer who analyzed the annual statistics from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. “There’s been a real downturn since the recession, and a doubling of immigrants is a good sign people are responding” to the improved economy.
California, home to the largest foreign-born population in the nation, had 201,199 more immigrants last year than in 2013. Florida, Texas, New York and Virginia rounded out the top five states with the largest growth in immigrants. Illinois, Missouri and Connecticut saw the biggest declines.
The latest Census Bureau statistics show shifting trends in the country of origin. Whereas Mexico and Central America accounted for the bulk of new arrivals in the past, immigrants to the U.S. are increasingly coming from Asia.
Asians accounted for 573,439 of the increase in the foreign-born population last year, and India (up 171,000) and China (up 136,000) together accounted for more than half of those gains, Frey said.
By comparison, people living in the U.S. who were born in Mexico rose by 129,512 last year from 2013. And the foreign-born from Central America grew by 153,865 between 2013 and 2014.
Asians who come to the U.S. tend to have higher educational attainment than other immigrant groups or those born in the U.S. Their growing numbers have had a particularly big impact in California.
“For the Bay Area, it’s absolutely important,” said Stephen Levy, a senior economist at the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto. “Already a very large share of the workforce is Asian where tech is the driving sector. There’s going to be a tremendous pull for highly educated folks.”
California’s 10.5 million immigrants now make up 27% of the state’s population of 38.8 million. Latinos account for about half and Asians about one-third of the foreign-born in California.
Demographers and economists expect the immigrant numbers to show a similarly big gain this year and possibly over the next few years, especially given the outlook for the global economy. The U.S. economy is expected to pick up a bit in the next year or two, while growth has slowed in countries including China and Mexico. That could add impetus for more to immigrate while encouraging those currently in the U.S. to stay.
Recent changes in the U.S. make it easier for foreign high-skilled workers and their spouses to work and remain in the U.S. beyond their regular employment period.
“Looking into the future, it’s going to be more balanced,” said Randy Capps, a research director at the Migration Policy Institute, referring to the mix of immigrants from Asia and Latin America, as well as other continents such as Africa. On the whole, he said, “it means a gradual improvement in the skills of many immigrants.”
Times staff writer David Lauter contributed to this report.