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By the Numbers: Immigration Changing Trends Over Time

The Brief
  • Since the 1960s, the number of immigrants and the composition of the foreign-born population in the United States have shifted and fluctuated significantly.

  • In 1960, the foreign-born population in the United States was 75 percent European and 9 percent Latin American. Today, more than 53 percent of the foreign-born population comes from Latin America and only 12 percent from Europe.

  • The foreign-born population also surged after the 1960s, from about 9.6 million in 1960 to 40 million today, but remains below earlier levels as a percentage of the total population.

Prior to the 1960s, the U.S. immigration system was governed by immigration quota laws from the 1920s. These nationality-specific quota systems reflected regional preferences: Northern and Western Europeans were viewed as a preferred source of immigrants, while immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa was restricted. The laws were also an attempt to decrease the inflow of immigrants after the foreign-born population reached 13.9 million in 1920—a record high at the time and the highest percent of the overall population at 15 percent. The quotas, which many believed were discriminatory, stood out in the midst of the social changes that came in the 1950s and 1960s, and were ultimately replaced by the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.

The 1965 immigration reforms are often credited as the beginning of a major wave of immigration, shifting the demographic makeup of the immigrant community in the United States. In changing a system from one that favored region, race, and nationality to a system that favored family ties and skills more equitably across nations, the law allowed for an eventual shift in the major sources of immigration away from Northern and Western Europe toward Asia and the Americas.

The result was a major (and ongoing) shift in the composition of foreign-born population. In 1960, the foreign-born population in the United States was 75 percent European, 9 percent Latin American, and 5 percent Asian. Today,
more than 53 percent of the foreign-born population comes from Latin America, while 28 percent comes from Asia, and only 12 percent comes from Europe (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. Composition of Foreign-Born Population in the United States (1960-2010)

In absolute numbers, the overall flow of immigrants to the United States also significantly increased after the act’s passage. Since 1965, the foreign-born population of the United States has increased from about 9.6 million (or about 5 percent of the total U.S. population) to 40 million in 2010 (about 14 percent of the population) (Figure 2). In that time span, new immigrants and their descendants accounted for 55 percent of U.S. population growth, adding 72 million to the total population.

Figure 2: Foreign-Born Population and Percent of Total Population (1850-2010)