U.S. Demographic History

The first official U.S. census, in 1790, returned a national population of a little under 4 million.[1] The most recently completed, in 2010, totaled America’s population at 309 million: an increase of 7,725%. You can find an up-to-date estimate of our current population on the Census Bureau website. When accessed on February 8, 2013 at 11:47 a.m. Mountain Standard Time, the U.S. population stood at 315,294,757. That makes the United States the third most populous nation in the world, behind China and India.

United States Population, 1790-2010

So far, the U.S. population trend has been ever upward. The largest decadal increases in absolute terms were also the most recent: from 1990 to 2000 the U.S. population grew by 33 million people, while from 2000 to 2010 population grew by 28 million. At 13% and 12%, however, these were not the highest decadal rates of growth in American history. For example, from 1830 to 1840, the U.S. population grew by 33%, from just under 13 million to more than 17 million people. However, this growth was on a much lower base population. So while the U.S. grew at a much higher rate over the course of the 19th century, most growth in total numbers occurred in the 20th century. From 1900 to 2010, the U.S. population more than quadrupled, from 76 million to 309 million people.

United States Population, 1900-2100

In contrast to the steady rise in total population, immigration numbers have fluctuated throughout American history. The following chart, also based on Census Bureau figures, shows decadal immigration numbers since 1820 (when the federal government began keeping such figures):

Immigration into the United States, 1820-2010

There has always been some immigration, but immigration levels have varied greatly, primarily due to changes in immigration policy. For example, between 1900 and 1910, net immigration (total immigration into the U.S. minus emigration from the U.S.) averaged about 900,000 annually. Between 1950 and 1960, net annual immigration was much lower, at around 250,000. And between 2000 and 2010, expansive immigration policies and lax enforcement of immigration laws pushed immigration numbers to their highest levels ever: net legal migration (immigration minus emigration) averaged more than one million, while net illegal migration fluctuated between zero and half a million, depending on the state of the economy.

As suggested by the figure above, America’s immigration history breaks down into four main periods: a laissez-faire century, with initially low and then accelerating numbers of immigrants; the “Great Wave” of mass immigration, primarily from southern and eastern Europe, lasting for five decades around the turn of the last century; a Great Pause from large-scale immigration, for about four decades during the mid-twentieth century; and a Second Wave of mass immigration, over the past fifty years, which continues unabated, this time with a majority of immigrants coming from Latin America. Briefly reviewing this history confirms the importance of immigration policy in determining how many people are allowed to enter and remain in the U.S.[2]

Immigration and Immigration Policy

1789-1880. During our first century, American immigration policy was set by the individual states, who largely limited themselves to testing incoming immigrants for communicable diseases in a few major ports, quarantining and in some instances sending back those deemed a threat to public health. In practice, this meant a laissez-faire immigration policy: those who could afford to book passage to America could enter, settle down and look for work. Acquiring citizenship (“naturalization”) when desired was relatively straightforward, and in any case the children of immigrants were born citizens.

Over its first ninety years, immigration into the U.S. rose from what was probably a few thousands per year at the start of the period to several hundreds of thousands per year by its end. Famine in Ireland and political repression in the aftermath of the European revolutions of 1848 briefly drove the numbers from 100,000 to over 400,000 for a few years before the Civil War; the “push” of Europe’s century-long population surge combined with the “pull” of newly-opened agricultural lands and factory jobs returned immigration numbers to that range within a few years of the war’s end.

Meanwhile, post-Civil War, large numbers of Chinese immigrants were brought to California, at first to build the railroads, later branching out into other areas of the economy. In the 1870s and 1880s, white settlers in California (many of them recent immigrants from Europe) began agitating against continued immigration of Chinese people into the state. Many proponents of restriction argued that Chinese laborers displaced white workers and drove down their wages—a position that resonated particularly strongly during the recurring recessions and depressions of the period. Others claimed that the Chinese were racially inferior; still others, that cultural differences made it difficult for them to assimilate, hence creating a threat to social stability and progress. In 1882, Congress heeded these calls and passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, slowing Chinese immigration to a trickle. Several years previously, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that individual states could not regulate immigration; the Exclusion Act helped establish the political principle that the federal government should make immigration law for the country as a whole, bringing a long period of de facto laissez-faire immigration policy to a close.

1881-1924. In 1881, immigration topped half a million for the first time in American history. From the 1880s through the mid-1920s, America experi­enced an immigration boom, “the Great Wave,” during which immigration averaged nearly 600,000 annually. This was the period during which the U.S. fully industrialized, creating a huge demand for factory workers. The demand was filled primarily by American farmers, displaced by depressed commodity prices and technological innovations in agriculture, and by European immigrants, particularly, during its second half, by immigrants from southern and eastern Europe (Italians, Greeks, Poles, Russians and others). This period of immense wealth creation was, somewhat paradoxically, also a period of great suffering for workers and of greatly increased economic inequality. Unions were founded and sometimes organized impressive numbers of workers, but they tended to be weak and found it hard to win major concessions. From Pennsylvania’s steel mills to Colorado’s coal mines, unions struck for better wages, hours and working conditions. They were usually defeated, often with the help of immigrant strikebreakers.

Throughout this period, as in the previous one, immigration policy was limited to sending back would-be immigrants for reasons of health or their likelihood of becoming “public charges”; no limits were placed on the overall numbers of immigrants. The Chinese example, however, suggested the possibility of more comprehensive immigration restrictions, and limiting immigration from Europe was debated with ever-greater seriousness. Throughout the period, many labor leaders argued for reduced immigration into the United States, in order to facilitate their efforts to improve conditions for workers—although then as now, some disagreed, believing that opposition to mass immigration risked alienating the immigrants they needed to organize. Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor and himself an immigrant, over time came to see reducing immigration as essential to creating a strong union movement, because organizing workers or winning concessions was so difficult under flooded labor markets. In a letter to Congress in the 1920s, he wrote:

Every effort to enact immigration legislation must expect to meet a number of hostile forces and, in particular, two hostile forces of considerable strength.

One of these is composed of corporation employers who desire to employ physical strength (broad backs) at the lowest possible wage and who prefer a rapidly revolving labor supply at low wages to a regular supply of American wage earners at fair wages.

The other is composed of racial groups in the United States who oppose all restrictive legislation because they want the doors left open for an influx of their countrymen regardless of the menace to the people of their adopted country.[3]

Such pro-labor arguments appealed to the left. On the right, cultural and racial arguments were made, regarding the swamping of “Anglo-Saxon stock” or the decline of traditional political and social institutions. Meanwhile, citizens of all political persuasions often sensed that the country was changing too quickly (from rural to urban, northern to southern European, etc.) and saw immigration reduction as one way to hit the brakes. Repeatedly during the first two decades of the twentieth century, one or both houses of Congress passed restrictive immigration legislation, only to have it die in the other house, or by Presidential vetoes. But in 1921 and 1924 the restrictionists finally succeeded. Congress enacted the first comprehensive quota system to limit overall immigration into the U.S. and the Great Wave came to an end.

1924-1965. The system put in place in 1924 had two key features. First, for those concerned about the numbers of immigrants entering America, it set an annual limit of 155,000 for immigrants from outside the Western hemisphere (inter-hemispheric immigration made up a small portion of the total at this time, and quotas for lands south of the border were not seen as necessary).[4] This represented a huge decrease: six times during the first two decades of the 20th century, annual immigration had topped one million. Second, for those worried about the changing ethnic makeup of the country, the legislation set quotas for individual sender countries based on their contribution to America’s ethnic make-up as of 1890. During the following decades, this led to most available “slots” being allocated to immigrants from northern Europe.

For the next forty years, from 1925 to 1965, this relatively restrictive immigration policy allowed about 175,000 people into the country annually (these numbers were also held down by economic depression and war). Demographers sometimes call this period “the Great Pause,” although at the time, most Americans thought of it as permanent. Speaking in 1936 at the rededication ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, President Franklin Roosevelt praised immigrants’ contributions to America, saying:

For over three centuries, a steady stream of men, women and children followed the beacon of liberty which this light symbolizes. They brought to us strength and moral fiber developed in a civilization centuries old but fired anew by the dream of a better life in America. . . . They not only found freedom in the new world, but by their effort and devotion they made the new world’s freedom safer, richer, more far reaching, more capable of growth.

But Roosevelt also said:

Within this present generation that stream from abroad has largely stopped. We have within our shores today the materials out of which we shall continue to build an even better home for liberty.[5]

Most Americans shared President Roosevelt’s views. Mass immigration had helped build the country and make us who we were. But times had changed, and the era of mass immigration was over.

In retrospect, the Great Pause corresponded with a golden age for American labor, despite encompassing the Great Depression. Labor markets tightened, eventually, and union organizing boomed. After World War II, salaries rose, work hours decreased and fringe benefits improved, as employers chased relatively scarce labor (this included hiring African-Americans into industrial occupations from which they had previously been excluded). America created the world’s first mass middle-class society, with a relatively egalitarian sharing of wealth, and relatively prosperous and secure workers throughout many sectors of the economy. Toward the end of this period, the nation took significant steps toward redressing its historic wrongs against African-Americans, with President Truman integrating the armed forces, the Supreme Court ruling segregated schooling unconstitutional, and Congress passing major civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. Throughout this period, there was no groundswell for a return to the relatively high levels of immigration of half a century earlier.

1965-present. Nevertheless, aspects of the “national origins” policy of 1924 rankled, particularly its explicit preference for immigrants from northern and western Europe. Although proponents argued that this simply preserved the existing ethnic make-up of the country, opponents decried it as discriminatory against other racial and ethnic groups: a relic of more racist times, ripe for reform in the civil rights era. In 1965, in response, Congress passed the Hart-Cellar immigration bill, replacing quotas that had favored European immigrants with a new system that instead allotted immigration slots to individual countries based on their proportion of total world population. Rather than mirror the existing ethnic or racial make-up of the United States, new immigrants would (in theory) mirror the world as a whole.

Proponents of the new policy took pains to assure Americans that it would not substantially increase total immigration, or radically change the ethnic make-up of the country. “Our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually,” assured Edward Kennedy, the bill’s chief Senate sponsor, on the Senate floor: “Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same.”[6] In fact, however, the new bill nearly doubled official quota levels from 155,000 to 290,000. It removed hard caps regarding refugee resettlement. Most important in hindsight, Hart-Cellar split out “family reunification”—broadly interpreted to include not just spouses and children, but also parents and siblings—as a separate immigration category that no longer counted against the annual country quotas and that had no legal limit. Family reunification subsequently became the country’s largest immigration category, accounting for over half a million immigrants annually, the majority coming from Mexico in a recurring “chain migration.” Within three decades, legal immigration into the United States had more than tripled, from 300,000 to 900,000 annually.

Meanwhile, illegal immigration also increased significantly. In 1986, in response to this increase, Congress, for the first time, made it a crime for employers to knowingly hire illegal workers. It also granted amnesty and citizenship to about three million illegal residents, presenting this as a one-time measure to “clear the books.” This and subsequent amnesties, however, along with weak enforcement of employer sanctions, encouraged even more illegal immigration, which rose to a peak of perhaps half a million annually in the first few years of the 21st century. Total numbers of illegal immigrants in the country continued to climb: from an estimated one to two million in 1965, that population grew to five to six million in 1986, and then to ten to twelve million illegal inhabitants by 2010.

Subsequent federal actions have tended to extend this generally expansive immigration policy. Country quotas were increased in 1980 and 1990. New categories of legal immigration were created: H1-B visas for highly-skilled workers, temporary work visas for agricultural workers (who often overstayed and joined the ranks of the illegal), 50,000 slots in an annual “diversity lottery” directed at citizens from “under-represented” sender countries, and numerous others. Meanwhile, illegal immigration has recently dropped sharply, probably due to the 2007 recession and subsequent economic slowdown. Over the past three years, annual immigration numbers have broken down approximately as follows[7]:

Family-sponsored 710,000
Employment-based 145,000
Diversity programs 50,000
Refugees and asylum seekers 160,000
Other categories 25,000
Total legal immigration 1,090,000
Illegal immigration (uncertain and highly variable) ~200,000
Total immigration (legal and illegal) ~1,300,000

Again, it seems important to note that these policy changes were not enacted as part of a groundswell of popular support for increased immigration. Quite the contrary: for the past half century, public opinion polls have typically found Americans split, about 40% to 40%, between those wanting to decrease immigration and those wanting to keep it at current levels. Typically, only 10% to 15% of poll respondents have favored an increase.[8] Every legislative change that has increased immigration numbers has been presented to the public as something else: in 1965, as a civil rights measure to do away with racist preferences for white Europeans; in 1986 and 1990, as part of more “comprehensive” legislative packages aiming to increase the enforcement of immigration laws. This suggests a large difference between elite opinion and general public opinion regarding immigration policy.[9]

In any event, 1965 initiated a second “Great Wave” of mass immigration, which continues today. During the 1990s, legal immigration averaged 900,000 annually, increasing to about one million per year during the next decade. That was the highest number in U.S. history and more than five times the average during the “Great Pause” around the middle of the previous century (although once again, it was not the highest rate of immigration: as a percentage of total U.S. population, rates were higher at the height of the first Great Wave than they are today). During this time, particularly due to the emphasis on “family reunification,” immigration from Mexico and the rest of Latin America has come to predominate, along with relatively high immigration numbers from South and East Asia. This period, like the era of the first Great Wave, has been a time of technological innovation and rapidly expanding wealth, increased racial and ethnic diversity, identity group politics (particularly in our larger cities), weak labor unions, stagnating wages for lower-income Americans, and increasing economic inequality.

A Demographic Note on the Causes of Population Growth

Comparing our previous figures showing population growth and immigration numbers might cause some confusion. How is it that the U.S. population has climbed steadily, while immigration has varied so greatly over the past hundred years? The answer is that population growth is a function of both immigration rates and birth-rates (among both natives and immigrants). More precisely, demographers see four primary factors determining the overall growth rate for any population: birth rates, death rates, immigration into a population, and emigration out of it. All four factors help determine whether a population grows or declines, and by how much.[10]

During the first Great Wave, from 1880 to the mid-1920s, America’s population grew rapidly, due to a combination of high birth rates and high levels of immigration.   U.S. population increased from 50 million in 1880 to 116 million in 1925. During the Great Pause, U.S. population continued to grow substan­tially—from 116 million to 194 million people in 1965—but now primarily due to high birth rates. During the 1950s, for example, American women had an average of 3.5 children each, far above the 2.1 total fertility rate (TFR) necessary to maintain a stable population for a nation with modern health care and sanitation. Population grew, but by tens of millions less than would have been the case, if pre-1925 immigration levels had continued.

By the 1970s, American women were having fewer babies — in 1976 the TFR stood at a lowest-ever 1.7 and it has remained near replacement level since then—and the United States was well-positioned to transition from a growing to a stable population. One study found that without post-1970 immigration, the U.S. popula­tion would have leveled off below 250 million around 2030.[11] At steady pre-1965 immigration levels, America’s population would have taken longer to stabilize and would have stabilized at a higher number, but broadly speaking the trajectory would have been the same.

If we had taken such a stabilization path, the U.S. would have been in good company. Germany, Italy, Great Britain, France, Japan and most countries in the developed world made this “demographic transition” in the decades after World War II and greatly slowed their rates of growth,[12]  as shown in the following table:

  Percentage population increase, 1950-2010 Percentage population increase, 1990-2010
France 55% 11%
Germany 19% 3%
Italy 29% 7%
Japan 52% 3%
United Kingdom 24% 9%
United States 104% 24%

However, the United States did not take this path. Instead, we increased immigration just as native birthrates fell below replacement level, bringing in tens of millions of new residents (see figure below).[13]

Number and Percent of Immigrants in the U.S., 1970-2010

Many of these new immigrants were women and men in their childbearing and child-raising years, coming from countries where large families remained the norm. This helped to raise U.S. fertility rates back up to replacement level. The number of births to immigrant mothers has increased quickly in recent decades, from 228,000 in 1970 to 916,000 in 2002, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics.[14] One researcher concludes: “at the very time that the great majority of native-born Americans were voluntarily choosing to limit their family sizes to levels which could have led to the end of U.S. population growth, Congress was making changes in immigration policy which have ensured ever more growth. The result of these changes was the highest sustained immigration and greatest population growth in U.S. history.”[15]

As a result, since 1965, the U.S. population has climbed from 194 to 315 million. That’s an increase of 121 million people, equal to the total population of the United States in 1928. Just as important, our population continues to grow rapidly, by approximately 3 million people annually. Indeed, the U.S. annual growth rate (0.96%) is much closer to that of developing countries such as Morocco, Vietnam, or Indonesia (all at 1.07%) than to other developed nations such as Denmark (0.25%), Taiwan (0.19%), or Belgium (0.07%).[16] The main difference is that population growth in the developing world is driven by high fertility rates, while population growth in the United States and the rest of the developed world is mostly a function of mass immigration.

Such is the United States’ demographic past. The accompanying report considers America’s de­mographic future. (Note: for a more detailed discussion of recent U.S. demographic history, see the Census Bureau publication Demographic Trends in the 20th Century, authored by Frank Hobbs and Nicole Stoops, published in 2002.)


[1] Unless otherwise specified, U.S. population and immigration numbers in this report are derived from U.S. Census Bureau data. Decadal population numbers are taken from the decadal Census results. Annual and decadal immigration numbers are taken from US Department of Homeland Security, "Yearbook of Immigration Statistics: 2011," table 1, “Persons Obtaining Legal Permanent Resident Status: Fiscal Years 1820 to 2011.”

[2] The following review of U.S. immigration and immigration policy draws from a number of standard histories. Particularly useful has been Otis Graham, Unguarded Gates: A History of America’s Immigration Crisis (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) and Susan Martin, A Nation of Immigrants (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[3] Samuel Gompers to Congress, March 19, 1924.

[4] Graham, Unguarded Gates, p.53.

[5] Roosevelt quoted in The Pittsburgh Press, October 30, 1936.

[6] Graham, Unguarded Gates, p.93.

[7] Office of Immigration Statistics, “Annual Flow Report, U.S. Legal Permanent Residents: 2011” (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, 2012), table 2.

[8] The Polling Company, “The Public’s View of Immigration: A Comprehensive Survey and Analysis” (Washington, DC: Center for Immigration Studies, 2006), p.4

[9] Roy Beck and Steven Camarota, Elite vs. Public Opinion: An Examination of Divergent Views on Immigration (Washington, DC: Center for Immigration Studies, 2002).

[10] Good introductions to basic demography include David Yaukey, Douglas Anderton and Jennifer Lundquist, Demography: The Study of Human Population, 3rd edition (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 2007) and Dudley Poston, Jr. and Leon Bouvier, Population and Society: An Introduction to Demography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[11] Ed Lytwak, “A Tale of Two Futures: Changing Shares of U.S. Population Growth” (Washington, DC: Negative Population Growth, 1999).

[12] US Census Bureau, “International Data Base,” “Midyear population and density.” Accessed November 2, 2012 at www.census.gov.

[13] Steven Camarota, “A Record-Setting Decade of Immigration: 2000-2010” (Washington, DC: Center for Immigration Studies, 2011). 

[14] Steven Camarota, “Births to Immigrants in America, 1970 to 2002” (Washington, DC: Center for Immigration Studies, 2005), figure 1.

[15] Lytwak, ibid.

[16] U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook (Washington, DC), 2011 edition.