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The immigrant population in the U.S. is climbing again, setting a record last year

Ukrainian refugees enter the El Chaparral border crossing between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego in April 2022. The foreign-born share of the U.S. population, which had been roughly flat since 2017, rose to nearly 14% last year.
Patrick T. Fallon
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AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian refugees enter the El Chaparral border crossing between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego in April 2022. The foreign-born share of the U.S. population, which had been roughly flat since 2017, rose to nearly 14% last year.

Updated September 14, 2023 at 11:42 AM ET

The immigrant population in the U.S. is growing again.

The number of people born somewhere else climbed by nearly a million last year, reaching a record high of just over 46 million, according to new estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The increase isn't huge for a country the size of the U.S. But it's significant, as growth had slowed sharply in recent years because of Trump administration policies and the pandemic.

"The foreign-born population zoomed up," said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "The gain in 2022 was as big as the previous four years put together."

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The foreign-born share of the U.S. population, which had been roughly flat since 2017, rose to nearly 14% last year.

Experts say the renewed growth coincides with a gradual reboot of legal immigration, like processing visas and vetting refugees, which had all ground to a halt during COVID.

The Biden administration has also opened the country's doors to tens of thousands of people fleeing from Afghanistan and Ukraine. Meanwhile, the administration has struggled to respond to a record-setting influx of migrants from Central and South America arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

"The immigration system is functioning a little better," said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. "We're letting people in. We didn't let many people in for a while. So that's part of it."

"Some of it is people we've admitted, and some of it is people we haven't admitted," Passel said.

The survey estimates include immigrants who are living in the U.S. legally, as well as those who are not.

The data show big gains in the number of immigrants from Latin America and Asia last year, Frey said. And he notes that a substantial number of new arrivals had college or post-college degrees.

"This image about immigrants coming in, that they're low-skilled and need to have a lot of government support, is not necessarily supported by a lot of these data. Because there are a lot of immigrants coming who are well-educated and can contribute a lot to the labor force," Frey said.

At the state level, Florida saw by far the largest increase in its foreign-born population. The Sunshine State added more than 200,000 immigrants last year, according to the annual Census Bureau estimate known as the American Community Survey. That was more than twice as many as Georgia, the state with the second-largest growth.

"I love it here," said Nimota Salami of Clarkston, Georgia. She was born in Nigeria, and had been living in Chicago until she moved to Georgia last year.

Salami says she was pleasantly surprised by the diversity she found in DeKalb County, just outside Atlanta, as well as the support for the catering and food business she started, Royal Nigerian Foods.

"The weather is very, very friendly," Salami said. "And moving here to Georgia opened me to so many things because I'm able to market my products very well."

Immigrants made up 10.7% of the population in Georgia last year, according to NPR's analysis of the Census data, a gain of nearly .7% compared with 2021. Other states that saw substantial gains in the share of immigrants included Maryland (.8%), New Jersey (.5%) and Iowa (.5%).

Gabriela Rivera has lived in Iowa since 1988, when she migrated with her mother from Mexico City. Rivera says the family chose Iowa because her mother already had family in the area — the same explanation she frequently hears from new arrivals.

"I think for a lot, it's just that they already have a support system," said Rivera, who now lives in Coralville, near Iowa City. "I know of other immigrants who have come here from another state, you know in the south, Texas, California, New Mexico, because someone was already here in Iowa and told them to come."

Rivera says she knows a lot more doctors, lawyers and teachers who are immigrants. And as the Spanish-speaking community has grown, she says, so has the availability of previously hard to find items like rosaries, soccer team memorabilia, and even her favorite food from back in Mexico: cactus leaves.

"That's something I grew up eating in my area in Mexico," Rivera said. "And now it's really easy to get it. Somebody is selling it at the store."

NPR's Nicholas McMillan and Tirzah Christopher, and Iowa Public Radio's Zachary Oren Smith contributed to this story. contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.