PolitiFact: Number of immigrants is highest but number needs context


“There are more immigrants in our country right now than any other time.”

— Tucker Carlson on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018 in a tweet

We wondered if Fox News’ Tucker Carlson was correct in saying the United States has more immigrants than ever.

Carlson linked us to reports from the Center for Immigration Studies and Pew Research Center on the growing foreign-born population in the United States, which is now at a record high.

The U.S. Census Bureau began asking people where they born in 1850. Large-scale immigration from Europe contributed to an increase of the foreign-born population in the United States from 1850 (2.2 million) to 1930 (14.2 million).

“The late 19th and early 20th century was a time of high immigration (relative to total population) because we had a growing economy (industrialization and urbanization),” said Mae M. Ngai, a professor of Asian American studies and history at Columbia University.

Nonpartisan think tank the Migration Policy Institute said restrictive immigration laws in the 1920s, the Great Depression and World War II then reduced the number of new arrivals. The number of immigrants dropped to 9.6 million by 1970 but has continued to grow since then. Today, the majority of the foreign-born population is from Latin America and Asia, according to the Census bureau.

The Pew report Carlson cited said the U.S. foreign-born population reached a record 43.2 million in 2015. “Since 1965, when U.S. immigration laws replaced a national quota system, the number of immigrants living in the U.S. has more than quadrupled,” it said.

Carlson also noted that the Center for Immigration Studies in October 2017 said the U.S. immigrant population hit a record 43.7 million in July 2016. (The center, which favors low levels of immigration, analyzed data from the Census’ 2016 American Community Survey. It said the total number of immigrants was likely 45.6 million because some immigrants are missed by the survey.)

So the number of immigrants in the United States is the highest it’s ever been. But 1890 holds the record for the highest percentage of immigrants as a share of the population. The total U.S. population in 1890 was about 63 million, and immigrants accounted for an estimated 14.8 percent. The total population in 2016 was about 323 million, which means about 13.5 percent were immigrants.

Through a spokeswoman, Carlson said he never claimed immigrants were at the highest level as a proportion of population.

Susan Martin, professor emerita of international migration at Georgetown University, said absolute numbers and proportion can help understand the scale and impact of immigration.

“Absolute numbers are important because each person presents needs and opportunities; proportion is equally important because impacts vary depending on whether the needs of a larger or smaller share of the population must be addressed,” Martin said.

Our ruling

The number of immigrants in the United States is the highest it’s ever been: about 43.7 million. But it’s worth noting that immigrants as a share of the population reached its peak in 1890, at 14.8 percent. In 2016, immigrants accounted for 13.5 percent of the population.

Carlson’s statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information. We rate it Mostly True.


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