Migrants Flooded the Border in 2019 — Census Bureau Claims the Inflow Dropped

Central American migrants arrive in Tijuana, Mexico, on Thursday. (Guillermo Arias / AFP / Getty Images)
Guillermo Arias / AFP / Getty Images

The Census Bureau claims that immigration dropped to just 595,000 people in the 12 months up to mid-2019, but the estimate is built on conflicting data, said Steven Camarota, a statistician at the Center for Immigration Studies.

“Net immigration is a very hard thing to measure because there is so much sampling variability” amid continued arrivals and departures, he said, adding that President Donald Trump’s pro-American policies may be prompting illegal migrants to evade surveys.

The bureau’s conflicting migrant population estimates are hidden under the bureau’s claim that the nation’s population rose by just 0.5 percent from July 2018 to July 2019, up to 328 million. The number is low partly because the bureau says the resident population of legal and illegal migrants rose by only 595,000 during the year up to July 2019.

But the Department of Homeland Security reported that 700,000 migrants crossed the southeastern border in the nine months before July 2019. The vast majority of those Central American migrants were allowed to stay pending their eventual asylum hearings.

That inflow of 700,000 migrants does not include the inflow of many illegal immigrants, the inflow of people who overstay their visas, nor the back-and-forth flow of roughly two million white-collar and blue-collar temporary workers, nor the legal immigrant inflow that has been about one million per year, even as 3.8 million new Americans were born during the same period.

Trump sharply reduced the flow of border migrants in the second half of 2019 and may have reduced the number of new overstays and new illegals. But Congress and business have blocked his 2018 efforts to shrink legal immigration.

Business groups and investors want the federal government to stimulate their economic growth and stock values by adding more immigrant workers and more consumers. Faster population growth means higher forecasts for economic consumption, sales, housing prices, and profits, thus boosting the value of stock prices on Wall Street.

So business groups are touting the bureau’s new low-ball estimate to demand even more migration. For example, the New York Times portrayed the bureau’s new claim of slow immigrant growth as bad for investors and the economy:

William H. Frey, a noted demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview Monday that the percentage increase was the lowest in a century. The growth rate during the most recent decade, about 6.7 percent, is expected to be the lowest since the government started taking population counts around 1790, he said.

“This is a huge downturn in the nation’s growth,” Mr. Frey said. “This is even lower than the Great Depression.”

Census watchers say that one of the biggest reasons for the stagnancy of the population is the decrease in the number of new immigrants. a trend that has continued through President Trump’s first three years in office.

“The immigration is really the [economic] safety valve for us going forward,” Mr. Frey said of population growth. “I think that immigration is an important part of what we have to think about going forward.”

In contrast, wage-earning Americans gain from a reduced migrant inflow. Any declines in worker population pressure employers to compete for new employees by offering higher wages and by training sidelined Americans. The slower population growth also allows young Americans to migrate to good jobs in other regions, and to buy homes in good locations at lower costs. Slower population growth also forces employers to buy labor-saving machines to allow employees to earn more by getting more work done each day.

Those changes also mean that slower population growth — via lower births or reduced immigration — also tends to transfer wealth from older investors back to young wage-earners. “Throughout American history, even during the Great Depression, business always says they don’t have enough workers,” said Camarota, adding:

That’s true today as well – [because] they always want to keep wages down [and] they have an [economic] interest in an ever-more densely populated America. Whether that is in the interest of the American people already here that is a different question.

However, the Associated Press pushed the same pro-migration, pro-growth theme. “Immigration is a wildcard in that it is something we can do something about,” Frey said. “Immigrants tend to be younger and have children, and they can make a population younger.”

“Immigration is no fix for an aging society,” said Camarota.  “The immigrants grow old, and they don’t have that many children.” Currently,  “everybody has got low fertility … and the fertility of young immigrants has declined more than the fertility of natives,” he said.
Some of the population data is easy to count accurately. For example, government agencies and hospitals reported just 3,791,712 births and 2,835,038 deaths in 2019, so boosting the native-born population by only 956,674.

But estimates for immigration are far more difficult, said Camarota.

For example, the two Census Bureau population-tracking estimates lag far behind the news.

In November, the bureau released its 2018 American Community Survey that excluded data from the second half of 2018 and all of 2019. So the 2018 report missed the inflow of roughly 800,000 migrants across the border in 2019 as it reported that 1.45 million new legal and illegal immigrants settled in the United States during 2017.

The estimated 1.45 million immigrant inflow in 2017 is down from 1.75 million migrants in 2016 and the 1.62 million migrants in 2015, but it was also more than any year between 2002 to 2013.

Alongside the ACS, the bureau also releases the Current Population Survey (CPS). It “showed a significantly larger total number of [legal and illegal] immigrants in 2018 (45.8 million) vs. the total shown in the ACS (44.7 million),” said a November analysis by Camarota.

“A recent news story in the New York Times announced that growth in the immigrant population “Slows to a Trickle,” said an October report by CIS, which explained:

An op-ed in the Times a few weeks later went even further, mistakenly interpreting the earlier report as meaning that “immigration fell 70%” in the last year. The writers interpret this as the result of President Trump’s immigration policy changes.

But it is not clear that any slowdown in immigration has actually taken place.

First, growth in the immigrant population does not measure new arrivals; immigrants come and go, so the net change in the total is not the same as the annual number of new arrivals.

More important, though, is that the two Census Bureau surveys that measure the foreign-born have recently diverged in unexpected ways. The Times news story correctly reports the results of one of those data sources, the American Community Survey (ACS), showing a growth of 200,000 immigrants. But the other data source, the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS ASEC, or just CPS for short), shows an increase of 1.6 million in the immigrant population between 2017 and 2018 – quite the opposite of “slowing to a trickle”.

These annual differences produce larger differences over several years, said the CIS report:

In terms of growth, the ACS shows a 4.8 million increase from 2010 to 2018 in the immigrant population, while the [2018] CPS shows a 6.9 million increase over the same period. The just-released 2019 CPS shows an increase of 7.3 million since 2010 …

From 2015 to 2019, growth in the immigrant population averaged one million in the CPS, while in the ACS it averaged 600,000 from 2015 to 2018 (Figure 1 and Table 1).

The swearing-in of new citizens also lags,he Census Bureau reports. The naturalization data show that a record number of immigrants became citizens — and possible voters — in 2019:

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