Despite Trump's 'wall' fixation, Latino immigration to US has plummeted

Guillermo Arias, AFP | An exhibit by local artist Robenz and Central American migrants is on display on the beach next to a section of the US-Mexico border fence as seen from Tijuana, in Baja California state, Mexico, on January 8, 2019.

Despite US President Donald Trump’s lurid rhetoric on a "crisis" at the Mexican border, census data reveals the number of new arrivals from Latin America has fallen considerably since 2010, as the rate of immigration from Asia has taken off.


Trump’s hang-up over Latin American immigration across the Mexican border reached its apogee with his February 15 announcement of a national emergency in order to circumvent Congress and "build a wall" – the signature promise of his 2016 campaign. This declaration was rejected by the House of Representatives and faces a tight Senate vote.

Although Latino immigration remains the primary focus of Trump’s nativist tendencies, 2017 census data (which is anonymous) analysed by The Brookings Institution shows that, since 2010, immigration from Latin America to the US has declined sharply, while the number of new arrivals from Asia has soared.

From 2016 to 2017, 446,000 came from Asia, compared to 130,000 from Latin America. 41 percent of new immigrants since the start of the decade have been Asian while 38.9 percent have been Latin Americans. This makes for a stark contrast with the 2000s, during which Asian immigration comprised a mere 28.8 percent of the total – compared to 55.1 percent for Latin Americans.

According to the Pew Research Center, there were 10.7 million illegal immigrants residing in the US in 2016, representing a mere 3.3 percent of the total American population. This marked a 13 percent decline from the 2007 peak of authorised immigrants in the US – 12.2 million; or 4 percent of the US population. Mexicans comprised half of those in the US illegally in 2016, compared to 57 percent in 2007 – a decline of 1.5 million.

Now ‘more opportunities for young people in Latin America’

Experts say that economic and demographic factors explain the decline in Latin American immigration to the United States. “Even though it’s now been ten years since the Great Recession hit [the US], I think it’s had some impact,” noted William Frey, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and author of Diversity Explosion, who wrote the census data analysis, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

At the same time, “increased urbanisation and industrialisation in the major Latin American countries have meant good opportunities for the young people who are there, so they are less inclined to move,” Jack Goldstone, a global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington DC and professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia, whose area of expertise includes immigration, told FRANCE 24. Concurrently with this economic shift, “most Latin American countries have dropped fertility [rates] from 4 children per household in the 1980s to barely over 2 children today”, Goldstone continued.

The corresponding rise in new arrivals from Asia can be attributed to long-term trends in US government policy favouring high-skilled immigration and family reunification.

Since the 1990 Immigration Act put the priority on visas for highly educated and qualified workers, while capping yearly arrivals from those considered unskilled at 10,000, “those visas have predominantly been granted to people from Asia, and once people are in the US through those occupational visas, they can then sponsor family members”, said Janelle Wong, an immigration specialist and professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Maryland, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “If we carry on with the same kind of policies in the future, we will definitely see more immigration from Asia,” she continued.

Shifting patterns in the American economy have accentuated this phenomenon over recent years, Frey added: “the rise of what we call the ‘knowledge economy’ industries – for example in computer work or medical work – helps to bring Asians to the US.”

A 'class element’ explains why there’s less prejudice against Asians

Given the shrinking rate of Latino immigration, the US-Mexico border may seem a strange idée fixe for Trump and sections of his base.

79 percent of those who voted for him in the 2016 presidential elections favoured building a wall across the entire frontier, according to a Pew Research Center survey. However, Trump’s strongest support is in areas where immigration is it at its lowest. For example, of all American states, his highest share of the vote in 2016 – at 68.5 percent – was in West Virginia, where immigrants constituted just 1.6 percent of the population according to 2015 figures.

Many Trump voters are “not really seeing what’s going on”, Frey commented. “Because the actual reality is detached from people’s stereotypes, they’re not really focused on Asians as much as Hispanics. You don’t see Trump talking about Asians very much – it’s off the radar.”

A “class element” also explains the nativist focus on Latin American as opposed to Asian immigrants, argued James Hollifield, an immigration specialist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Because the latter tend to be “highly educated”, the “dynamic that says these people are coming in and stealing jobs hasn’t really taken hold in the same way that people talk about Central Americans, for example, who are often without status, often at the bottom of the labour market”, he told FRANCE 24.

Nevertheless, Wong cautioned that “there’s always going to be this suspicion based on phenotypic differences and that kind of attitude is triggered pretty fast”, while “some research suggests that if you present people with evidence of demographic change, they become more supportive of restrictive [immigration] policies”.

Non-Hispanic whites will be a minority by 2045

The current wave of Asian immigration forms part of a long-term trend, in which the rise of the overall ethnic minority population is projected to make non-Latino whites a minority in the US by 2045.

Historically, large immigration flows to the country have meant that “until minorities are assimilated, until they’re seen as part of the majority, you’ve got pressure that’s going to build up like it did with southern and eastern European immigration from the 1890s to the 1920s”, Eric Kaufmann, a political demographer at Birkbeck College, University of London and the author of "Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities", told FRANCE 24. “But when this demographic pressure lifts, it does so quite quickly – as it did from the ’50s to the ’80s, when intermarriage took off”.

“Once people get used to a city or a county or a state working well, even if there is a very diverse population with a non-Hispanic white minority group, as it is in Los Angeles, then it’s fine,” Goldstone concluded.

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