Changing Source Countries for U.S. Immigration

21 08 2012

NPR’s PlanetMoney show recently published a graph that shows how the countries supplying the US with immigrants have changed over the last century.

Obviously, the changing composition of the foreign-born population of the US is due to a combination of factors: legislative changes, improved transportation technology, and convergence in living standards between the US and some of the countries that used to send lots of immigrants. Notice how Europeans and Canadians now represent a much smaller proportion of the foreign-born population of the US than they did a century ago? That’s largely because these countries now have attained GDP per capita levels similar to that of the US. There are far more Asian immigrants living in the US-  thanks to the 1965 immigration act (thank you President Johnson) and the advent of the cheap air travel (thank you Boeing).

Johnson signs the 1965 immigration law at Ellis Island

The striking thing about this graph is the vast increase in the proportion of immigrants from Mexico. I’m not certain what explains this.

Travel between the US and Mexico isn’t that much easier today than it was a century ago– in the early 20th century there was cross-border train service, so it was pretty easy to ride to the US.   In other words, improved transportation technology doesn’t explain why Mexico has become a more important supplier of immigrants. Prior to 1924, there were no legal restrictions of Mexican immigration to the US and basically no border patrol. Now there are many restrictions and a semi-effective border patrol. There is still a big gap between US and Mexico living standards, yet I believe it has narrowed since 1960, so Mexicans would have less of an incentive to move to the US.

So what explains the upsurge in Mexican immigration to the US in recent decades?

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