Both legal and illegal immigration spiked over the past two years, with the total number of arrivals in that period topping 3 million for the first time since the end of the Clinton administration, according to figures from an immigration think tank released Wednesday.
Roughly one-third of those are illegal immigrants, accounting for 550,000 each year in 2014 and 2015, the Center for Immigration Studies calculated based on Census Bureau statistics.
The numbers suggest an early trend of rising immigration, with major increases in arrivals from East and South Asia and from Latin American countries besides Mexico. All told, the number of immigrants living in the U.S. likely posted a record high of 43 million at the beginning of this year, the center concluded.
“The idea that somehow the era of mass immigration is over is wrong,” said Steven A. Camarota, a demographer and research director at the center. “Basically, a decline from Mexico has been replaced by increases from elsewhere.”
Indeed, Mexico, which a decade ago lost as many as 500,000 people a year to the U.S., sent only about 150,000 a year in 2014 and 2015. The rest of Latin America, however, has seen a spike from about 225,000 a year to about 440,000 a year.
His report focused on the flow of immigrants, but Mr. Camarota said he also has reached a “preliminary” estimate of the total number of illegal immigrants now in the country, which he put at 11.7 million as of the beginning of the year.
The forces at work are complex, analysts say.
In terms of the legal immigrant population from Asia, a spike in long-term work visas for Indians and Chinese is powering the growth. The illegal immigrant surge, meanwhile, is likely due to unaccompanied children and families from Central America, as well as an even bigger increase in people from across the globe coming on legal visas, then not leaving when their time is up.
The Obama administration has struggled to count the number of visa overstays, but data from the Center for Migration Studies — which is unaffiliated with the Center for Immigration Studies — suggests more than half of all unauthorized immigrants arrived legally but overstayed their terms.
Brandon Judd, the chief of the National Border Patrol Council, testified to Congress two weeks ago that agents aren’t even looking for overstays because their hands are tied by President Obama’s new enforcement policies.
“The problem that we face today is nobody believes that our immigration laws are going to be enforced. Everybody worldwide knows that our immigration laws are not going to be enforced,” he said.
The pace of immigration — both legal and illegal — has been a sleeper issue in the presidential race this year.
Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump has said he would cut the level of employment-based visas and would target illegal immigrants for deportation, while the two remaining Democratic candidates have both supported more lenient policies for illegal immigrants and increases in legal immigration.
“With numbers like these, it’s certainly appropriate that immigration numbers should be at the forefront of the presidential debate,” Mr. Camarota said of his research.
He used the Census Bureau’s monthly Current Population Survey, the annual American Community Survey and its Social and Economic Supplement, which oversamples minorities, to calculate his findings.
Mr. Camarota found immigration bottomed out in 2010 and 2011, with only a little more than 1 million immigrants arriving a year at that point — about a third of them unauthorized. That rose to about 1.1 million a year in 2012 and 2013, and to more than 1.5 million a year in 2014 and 2015 — again, with about one-third of them unauthorized.
His calculation of 11.7 million illegal immigrants in the country as of the beginning of 2016 is stark, and it contradicts other research that suggests the number has been dropping in recent years. Indeed, the unaffiliated Center for Migration Studies recently estimated the number had dropped to 10.9 million — below the 11 million mark — as of 2014.
The Obama administration hasn’t produced an estimate of the unauthorized population since January 2012.