Changes in U.S. Foreign Born May Slow Population Growth

The social and demographic profile of the U.S. foreign-born population is changing rapidly, according to recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau. These changes, which include a sharp decline in early marriage and an increase in college enrollment, are challenging common assumptions about the foreign born and have implications for future population growth in the United States.


Immigration has been a key factor driving U.S. population growth in recent decades. Compared with the U.S.-born, the foreign born are more likely to be married, less likely to attend college, and more likely to be of reproductive age.1 In combination, these characteristics have contributed to higher fertility rates and a large number of births to foreign-born women. In recent years, immigrants and their children have fueled continuing population growth in the United States, even as the fertility rate dropped below replacement level (2.1 births per woman).2


But a report released last week by the Pew Research Center shows that there has been a sharp drop in the number of births to foreign-born women, from 102 births per 1,000 foreign-born women ages 15 to 44 in 2007 to just 88 per 1,000 in 2010.3 Since the onset of the recession in 2007, the U.S. foreign-born population has changed in several important ways that may dampen the number of births to immigrants in the coming years.


More Educated, Less Likely to Marry


First, college enrollment and educational attainment is increasing among the foreign born. In the four-year span from 2007 to 2011, the share of the foreign born ages 18 to 24 enrolled in college or graduate school increased from 32 percent to 39 percent (see table). During that same period, the proportion with only a high school diploma or less education fell from 56 percent to 54 percent. Higher educational attainment is linked to lower fertility, in part because the time women spend in school competes with having children.4 Thus, foreign-born fertility is expected to drop as women’s college enrollment increases. Among 18-to-24-year-olds, more women than men are enrolled in college in every racial and ethnic group.5


Characteristics of the U.S. Foreign-Born Population, 2007 and 2011


2007 (%) 2011 (%)
Enrolled in College or Graduate School (Ages 18-24) 31.9 38.7
Currently Married (ages 18-24) 22.2 16.9
High School Diploma or Less (Ages 25+) 56.0 54.0
Born in Asia 26.8 28.6
Born in Latin America 53.6 52.6
Ages 45+ 39.7 43.9

Note: Estimates are subject to both sampling and nonsampling error.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey and Current Population Survey.

Second, the percentage of foreign-born adults ages 18 to 24 who are married has dropped sharply, from 22 percent in 2007 to 17 percent in 2011. This decline parallels a similar—but smaller—decline in marriage among the U.S.-born in that age group, from 11 percent to 9 percent. Delayed marriage, like education, results in lower fertility primarily by postponing age at first birth. This is particularly true for foreign-born women, who are less likely than U.S.-born women to have births outside of marriage.


The changing patterns of education and marriage may reflect the changing composition of the foreign-born population. Between 2007 and 2011, the share of the foreign born from Asia increased from 27 percent to 29 percent, while the percentage from Latin America fell slightly, from 54 percent to 53 percent. Asian women in the United States—the majority of whom are foreign born—have a total fertility rate (1.7 births per woman) that is well below replacement level and lower compared with other racial/ethnic groups.

Finally, the foreign-born population is growing older, with more who are past peak childbearing ages. The percentage of foreign born ages 45 and older increased from 40 percent in 2007 to 44 percent just four years later. The older age structure of the foreign born may reflect a combination of factors: the older age profile of new immigrants arriving in the United States and a decline in net immigration, so that there are fewer young adults arriving to replace the foreign born entering older age groups.


State and Local Trends


The total foreign-born population in the United States has increased slightly in recent years, from 38.1 million (12.6 percent) in 2007 to 40.4 million (13 percent) in 2011. But since 2007, there have been eight states where the percent foreign born has declined, including several with large foreign-born populations: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon. During this time period, New Jersey and Maryland experienced the largest percentage-point gains in the foreign-born population (an increase of more than 1.5 percentage points each).


Although the growth of the foreign-born population has slowed, the pattern of geographic dispersal of the foreign born that was evident during the 1990s has continued during the past decade. In 2000, the foreign born made up 5 percent or more of the population in about 19 percent of all U.S. counties. By 2007-2011, 27 percent of counties had foreign-born populations that made up at least 5 percent of the total. However, the foreign-born population is still highly concentrated in certain parts of the country, with more than half residing in just four states: California, Florida, New York, and Texas.


More detailed data for states, cities, counties, and metropolitan areas are available in PRB’s U.S. Data.

Implications for U.S. Growth


Later this month, the Census Bureau will release new population projections for the United States. Their previous projections, from 2008, put the U.S. population at 400 million by 2039; however, the rate of increase depends largely on future trends in immigration. Future immigration levels in the United States are hard to predict because they depend on a complex mix of “push” and “pull” factors. Historically, the United States has been attractive to immigrants because of its strong economy and demand for both low-skilled and high-skilled workers. The availability of work in agriculture, construction, and manufacturing has attracted millions of low-skilled workers from Latin America, especially Mexico. Many Asians come to the United States to attend college or pursue careers in science and technology.


However, changes in the size and characteristics of the foreign-born population could alter the trajectory of U.S. population growth. Future trends in the number and characteristics of immigrants depend on the availability of jobs as well as changes in federal and state immigration policies.




    1. Elizabeth M. Grieco et al., “The Foreign-Born Population in the United States: 2010,” American Community Survey Reports (May 2012), accessed on Dec. 4, 2012.


    1. Mark Mather, “The Decline in U.S. Fertility,” Population Reference Bureau Fact Sheet (July 2012), accessed on Dec. 5, 2012.


    1. Gretchen Livingston and D’Vera Cohn, “U.S. Birth Rate Falls to a Record Low; Decline Is Greatest Among Immigrants,” Pew Social and Demographic Trends Report (November 2012), accessed on Dec. 5, 2012.


    1. Gary Becker, A Treatise on the Family (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).


    1. Linda A. Jacobsen and Mark Mather, “A Post-Recession Update on U.S. Social and Economic Trends,” Population Bulletin Update (December 2011), accessed on Dec. 5, 2012.