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  • March 13, 2023

Latin American immigration to the United States

What are the commonalities and differences among major immigration waves?

Source: Chaay_Tee

Immigration continues to cause heated political debate in the United States. Recently, the Biden administration faced criticism for its handling of issues at the southern US border, but the complaints sound almost identical to those a decade ago. 

A paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives looks at the problem from a long-run perspective. The authors, Gordon Hanson, Pia Orrenius, and Madeline Zavodny, take stock of current and historic immigration trends, reviewing the primary causes of immigration from Latin America and suggesting possible future paths.

Figure 1 from the authors’ paper helps put US immigration from Latin America in historical perspective.



Figure 1 from Hanson et al. (2023)


Panel A in the chart shows how immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean changed from 1960 to 2019; Panel B compares this immigration with other countries and regions; and Panel C compares it with earlier immigration waves. 

Several notable patterns emerge. Latin America became the top origin region for US immigrants in 1990, and by 2019 migrants from Latin America comprised 6.5 percent of the US population. Unsurprisingly, Mexico is the largest source of Latin American migrants to the United States, but its immigrant share peaked in 2010 and has declined since then. 

Furthermore, immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean has plateaued, while immigration from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East continue to grow.

When compared to the large waves of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, modern Latin American immigration looks similar in magnitude. Immigration from Mexico is similar in scale to that from Ireland and Germany—peaking at 4 to 5 percent of the US population—and faced similar political opposition, according to the authors. 

As in the past, political opposition to the current immigration wave is notably isolationist. But the authors warn that a long-run slowing of immigration from Latin America could disrupt labor markets in parts of the US economy, especially in labor-intensive industries in the Sunbelt and Western states.

US Immigration from Latin America in Historical Perspective appears in the Winter 2023 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.