Numbers Geek

Here’s a good way to measure the controversy surrounding any political issue: count the number of adjectives and adverbs that reporters and politicians use when they’re talking about it.

Immigration is one of the biggest examples. News reports and political speeches are peppered with phrases like “massive migrant caravan,” “desperate journey north,” “cruel and counterproductive policies,” and “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall.”

So let’s put the adjectives and arguments aside and ask, what are the actual numbers behind U.S. immigration?

On this episode of GeekWire’s Numbers Geek podcast, we look at the key immigration numbers and trends in the United States, including the implications for the U.S. population and economy, with Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO and the founder of USAFacts, the non-partisan, not-for-profit civic data initiative that is GeekWire’s partner on the Numbers Geek podcast. The goal of the podcast, and of this episode in particular, is to ground the conversation in a common understanding of the numbers, to inform the broader debate.

“People should know the numbers,” Ballmer says. “Immigration is here. It’s a real part of the growth of this country. It’s been part of the way this country has evolved. … Who’s coming in? Who’s coming out? Why are they coming in? Why are they going out? That really should help us find common ground in terms of resolving some of the issues in front of us, and then in that context, talk in a reasonable way about policy.”

For the long-term trend, USAFacts provides a detailed timeline looking at immigration numbers in the context of U.S. policy changes and historical events dating back to 1850.

Listen above, or subscribe in your favorite podcast app, watch a video of Steve explaining the numbers below, and continue reading for key numbers and links from this episode. See more Numbers Geek episodes here

  • The U.S. foreign-born population, including documented and undocumented immigrants, is about 45 million, representing about 14 percent of the U.S. population of about 325 million.
  • In the 1960s and 1970s, the foreign born population was as low as 5 percent.
  • In recent years, net migration into the United States has been about 1 million people annually, including documented and undocumented immigrants. (To be precise, for 2017-2018, the U.S. Census Bureau reports net migration of 978,826 people.)
  • That net migration of 1 million people annually accounts for about half of the overall annual population increase of 2 million people a year, and population is one factor driving GDP growth.
  • The government estimates that about 12 million undocumented immigrants lived in the U.S. as of 2015. This estimate is often disputed, including a 25 million number cited by President Trump last weekend but questioned by media reports.

See for more long-term immigration trends and listen to our earlier Numbers Geek episode about numbers at the U.S. border.

With reporting and audio production by Clare McGrane.