As an absolute number, the number of immigrants in America has never been greater. Previously, the number of immigrants in the United States had peaked near 15 million around 1930, about 15% of the population at the time, but declined steadily through 1970 to less than 10 million, fewer than 5% of the population, due to the Great Depression, new legislation, and World War II. However, the immigrant population began increasing rapidly in the 1970s, surpassed the 15 million mark in 1980, and baring severe policy reform shows no sign of slowing down.
In 2012, the Census Bureau reported that there were 40.8 million foreign born people living in the United States, up 1.1% from 2011, and accounting for 13% of the total population. These people include both legal and illegal residents, naturalized citizens, refugees, and those on certain temporary visas.
As a political issue, immigration hasn’t been this hot in decades. Although most headline ideological positions on the issue haven’t changed, the economic impact of immigration has changed rapidly. As the immigrant population grows, so does its economic footprint, and it appears now to have reached a tipping point. As the White House so neatly summed it up, “America’s immigration system is broken,” and things only get worse when a broken system is overloaded, which means that the cost of doing nothing is enormous.
The cost is so enormous, in fact, that policymakers have been compelled to act. Notably, in April of 2013, a bipartisan “gang of eight” Senators led by Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S.744). The act, among other things, would create a more cogent path to citizenship, increase border security, increase the number of work visas granted, and invest in jobs programs for youth. Ambitiously, the bill seeks to reduce illegal border crossings by 90%, while simultaneously offering amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants already in the country.