Immigration: Top Origin Nations and Top Destinations

December 15, 2016

Where do immigrants to the U.S. come from? Where do they end up? A recent article in The Regional Economist explored these topics.

Research Officer and Economist Subhayu Bandyopadhyay and Research Associate Rodrigo Guerrero used data on foreign-born residents as a proxy for current and past immigration flows. The authors noted that this isn’t a perfect measure due to lumping together naturalized citizens, foreign-born individuals whose parents are both natives, legal immigrants and unauthorized immigrants.

They wrote: “However, we used the data because of its accessibility and reliability. Indeed, if a state is more attractive to immigrants, one would expect it to get a larger inflow of immigrants, which should be reflected in a correspondingly higher level of foreign-born residents.”

Where Immigrants Are Coming from

Bandyopadhyay and Guerrero noted that Mexico is the top origin nation for immigrants, contributing about 4 percent of the U.S. population.1 India is the next largest contributor, but at less than one-fourth the share of what Mexico contributes. China, the Philippines and El Salvador round out the top five. (To see the shares of the top 10 nations, see The Regional Economist article “Immigrants to the U.S.: Where They Are Coming from, and Where They Are Headed.”)

Proximity seems to play a big role in Mexico’s relatively large share of the immigrant population, yet Canada doesn’t rank in the top 10 nations in terms of immigration to the U.S. The authors wrote: “It is closer to the U.S. in terms of its level of economic prosperity than is Mexico, and, hence, the incentive for Canadians to migrate to the U.S. is not comparable to that for Mexicans.”

Where Immigrants Are Going

Bandyopadhyay and Guerrero noted that 14.2 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born, but only 14 states had shares above this average. They wrote: “This implies that immigrants favor only a few states; alternatively, a few states are more hospitable than others for immigrants.”

California had the highest percentage of foreign-born population at 28.1 percent, followed by New York, New Jersey, Florida and Nevada. West Virginia had the lowest at 1.9 percent. (To see where each state ranks, see The Regional Economist article “Immigrants to the U.S.: Where They Are Coming from, and Where They Are Headed.”)

The authors noted that definitive answers for why immigrants favor some states over others is beyond the scope of their Regional Economist article. They explained that proximity can play a role up to a point. Mexico was the leading source of immigration for the states bordering it (Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas), and Cuba was the top source nation for Florida.

However, New Jersey has India as its largest source nation. Bandyopadhyay and Guerrero wrote: “This suggests that distance between source nations and potential destination states might be an important factor for countries that are relatively close to the U.S. (e.g., Mexico or Cuba), but not as much for distant countries like India.”

Notes and References

1 The authors calculated the numbers based on the 2014 American Community Survey, conducted by the Census Bureau and accessed via IPUMS-USA.

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