U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Skip Header

How the Census Bureau Measures the Foreign-Born Population and Immigration

Written by:

Census Bureau statistics can be used to answer many questions about the foreign-born population in the United States. For example: How many foreign-born people are here? Where are they from? Where do they live? Are they naturalized U.S. citizens or noncitizens? Do they speak English? How many have a college degree? Are they working? How much do they make? What percent are in poverty? How many have health insurance coverage?

Data from the American Community Survey can be used to answer these and many other key questions. As the nation’s flagship survey, the American Community Survey is designed to provide statistics on demographic, social, economic and housing characteristics of American communities. This includes the immigrant population.

According to the 2011 American Community Survey, there were 40.4 million foreign-born people living in the United States. More than half (53 percent) were born in Latin America and more than one-fourth (29 percent) in Asia. Most (56 percent) lived in just four states: California, New York, Texas and Florida. Less than half (45 percent) were naturalized citizens.

The majority (84 percent) of the foreign-born residents age 5 and older spoke a language other than English at home, and among those who did, about two in five (40 percent) spoke English “very well.” More than one in four foreign-born residents 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher education.

In addition, two-thirds (67 percent) of immigrants 16 and older were in the labor force. Foreign-born households had a median income of about $46,000, but about one-in-five immigrant families (19 percent) were in poverty. About one-third (34 percent) had no health insurance coverage.

While the American Community Survey can tell us a great deal about immigrants, what about immigration? How many foreign-born people enter the United States each year? How many of today’s immigrants arrived in the last 10 years, during a previous decade, or even during an earlier period, say, before 1980?

The Census Bureau does not count the number of immigrants entering the United States. Rather, that’s the task of the Department of Homeland Security, the principal source of administrative data on immigration. While invaluable, the Homeland Security data include only a limited number of variables, providing little detailed information for analysis.

Data from the American Community Survey, however, can be used to estimate the number of foreign-born arrivals in two ways. First, the survey asks: Where did you live one year ago? Residence one year ago helps determine the number of immigrants who were living outside the United States a year before the survey. For example, in 2011, there were 1.1 million foreign-born people age 1 and over who lived abroad 12 months before the survey.

Second, the American Community Survey also asks: When did you come to live in the United States? Data on year of entry helps estimate the number of today’s foreign-born people who came to this country during specific periods. For example, in 2011, of the 40.4 million foreign-born, 14.4 million came to live in the United States in 2000 or later; 10.8 million arrived between 1990 and 1999; and 15.2 million entered before 1990.

In contrast to administrative data on immigration, the American Community Survey offers a wealth of additional social, economic, demographic and housing information. This extra information gives policy makers and researchers the opportunity to draw important conclusions about the characteristics of immigrants as well as trends over time.

For instance, by combining residence one year ago with country of birth, the American Community Survey data show that immigration from Mexico has recently declined, from 369,000 in 2005 to 161,000 in 2011. By analyzing when the foreign-born came to live in the United States, the American Community Survey also shows that recent arrivals — those who came in 2008 or later — are more likely to be from Asia and less likely to be from Central America than earlier arrivals.

Also, the longer the foreign-born reside in the country — as measured by the years since they came to live in the United States — the more integrated they are into American society. The survey data clearly show that the longer immigrants live in the United States, the more likely they are to speak English “very well,” have good-paying jobs and be naturalized citizens, and the less likely they are to live in poverty and be uninsured.

For additional information on the foreign-born population in the United States, visit the Census Bureau’s website. In addition, please see a recent report on married-couple households with a foreign-born spouse.

Is this page helpful?
Thumbs Up Image Yes Thumbs Down Image No
255 characters maximum 255 characters maximum reached
Thank you for your feedback.
Comments or suggestions?


Back to Header