World Population

Immigration waves in the USA and beyond

A symptom, not cause, of a growing and changing world

March 11th 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow

Photograph by Drew Angerer

Two minutes after midnight on October 12th, 1999, Adnan Nevic was born just outside Sarajevo, Bosnia. He was dubbed “Baby Six Billion”, as his birth marked not only the start of his own life but also the growth of human population beyond six billion worldwide.

Population had been growing rapidly since the industrial age, and today stands at over 7 billion. More than 26 million people have been born in 2015 alone, a result of continuously increasing birthrates. While China and India are the hosts to the world’s largest population, the United States is a distant third. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s birthrate is rising so quickly that it is expected to exceed the US, Brazil, and Indonesia in population by 2050 and reach nearly 1 billion by 2100.

In Nigeria, the reasons for such growth are many: a drop in both adult and infant mortality rates due to medical advancements, a growing economy, and a still fledgling use of contraception, among other factors. This is a typical pattern among countries in a similar situation, both past and present.

The United States, meanwhile, has grown to over 320 million in 2015. The first national census in 1790 recorded a population just shy of 4 million, with a growth rate of 3% per annum. This rate has gradually declined to around 1% today. One year, however, stands out from the others – 2000.

The dot-com boom had reached its peak after 1999, as growth in the internet sector fueled the economy before eventually bursting. Whilst this would have encouraged a higher birthrate, just as economic gains in developing countries have done, this was actually not the case. The net increase in population appears to have had its unique origin not in the country’s birth rate, but in immigration.


Immigration into the US

The year 2000 saw 28.4 million immigrants living in the United States, the largest number  that had ever been recorded. In 1990,  it was below 20 million. Today, it stands at over 40 million. These figures exclude undocumented immigrants, meaning population numbers are even higher in reality. Why did this rate spike so suddenly in 2000, and what drives over a million immigrants to enter the United States every year?

The dot-com boom of the 1990s undoubtedly made the United States an attractive destination for immigration. Economic opportunity appeared to be abundant, and demand for labor increased even despite the American birth rate barely being self-sustaining; that is, falling short of the required rate of 2 children per couple.

Neighboring Mexico supplies a large portion of the population of immigrants, largely due to the ease of movement across their shared border as opposed to having to travel overseas. Overall, 58 percent of immigrants to the US come from Latin America. This concept is commonly portrayed as a simple case of influx of labor into the job market, but this is not necessarily the case.


Emigration away from the US

In examining the reasons for this immigration wave and the momentum thereafter, it can be useful to ask a question about the behavior of another population: American emigrants. Over 800,000 Americans are legal residents in the EU, which is only a few thousand more than the oddly large American resident population in Mexico. Canada, the Philippines, Israel, Japan, and Brazil are among others with resident American populations in the tens of thousands and beyond.

Some of the most commonly cited reasons behind this emigration are business opportunities (oil in Dubai), cheaper economies (housing in Mexico), political atmospheres (freedoms in the Netherlands), religious reasons (Jewish diaspora to Israel), or access to government services (healthcare in Canada).

These reasons change throughout history, such as political emigrants leaving for Canada after the election of George W. Bush, which spiked minutely after the 2004 election, or the thousands who emigrated from the Confederate States of America to Brazil following the end of the Civil War in the 1860s. Even between 1999 and 2010, the economy had changed enough to cause a wave of emigration in search of better conditions.

All of this paints a picture of human migration in general – it happens for a variety of reasons, and tends to happen in waves following particularly significant events.


Economic and political change

The increase in Mexican immigrants in the United States, starting in 2000, can be attributed to people with low economic status seeking a better job market, access to better education and healthcare, a more politically and socially stable atmosphere, and an overall increase in quality of life.

Other immigrant groups may have spiked in different years, including Europeans after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Middle Eastern immigrants – both Muslim and Christian – seeking political and religious freedom in light of regional turmoil that continues today.

Photograph by Getty Images

Many countries around the world have seen similar waves of migration, including the influx of Jewish people into Israel following the 1940s, waves of European migration to such South American countries as Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay in the 1800s, and the sudden departure of white South Africans following dramatic political shifts in 1990 marking the end of Apartheid.

In the end, these sorts of population spikes can always be attributed to a catalyst. That catalyst, however, is often difficult to identify in the modern day, as global society is perhaps more dynamic than ever. Such analysis tends to be easier looking back over several decades, as patterns in history become clearer, and yet the details more obscure.


Looking into the future

The most important lesson from examining spikes in population growth such as that in the United States in 2000 is that the reasons for any change in our global society are exceedingly complex. Human movement across boundaries is as old as the species itself, and will continue to be driven by new factors. The rate of Mexican immigration to the US is falling, while the number of Americans living abroad is increasing. This is a microcosm of the world at large, where the cultures, economies, and political institutions are becoming interwoven, spurring both change and conflict.

Worldwide, death rates will fall, longevity will rise, birth rates will increase, and net population will grow and grow. As seen in the United States, a minor challenge such as immigration policy can be over-emphasized and seen as a cause for division.

However, the major challenge is how political, economic, and social conditions will be transformed, preserved, and expanded in order to meet the needs of a human community that is changing and growing faster than ever before.

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