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  by  Eric Ruark
On December 30, 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau released its estimation that the U.S. population increased by 1.6 million, and that net international migration was responsible for 38% (595,000) of that increase.

The Census Bureau calculates it’s population estimate by adding together natural increase (births minus deaths) and net international migration (“immigration of the foreign born, emigration of the foreign born, net migration between the United States and Puerto Rico, net migration of natives to and from the United States, and net movement of the Armed Forces population to and from the United States.”) to the exiting population to find the total population change in a year.

***Note: The percentage of population growth due to net international migration is only the net growth in the foreign-born residing in the United States in 2019 (see details for the actual time period below). It does not include births in the United States to the foreign-born, which account for a much larger percentage of total population growth. Almost all U.S. population growth is a result of net international migration.***

While there is no reason to take issue with the Census Bureau's methodology, the population estimate is just that; an estimate, not an enumeration. That estimate will be revised over time as more data is collected and compared with the original. No matter how accurate the Census Bureau’s estimates may be, there are by nature inexact and under constant revision. A recalibration will take place after the 2020 Census results are known, and these results will become the baseline for the next ten years of Census population estimates. Therefore, the initial estimate should be seen as preliminary, particularly because the foreign-born figure is a projection. The Census Bureau clearly states in its methodology.

Net international migration in 2019 is a projection and is subject to revision as more recent data on foreign-born migration become available. In addition, previous years in the time series may be revised to include more recent data on people who leave the United States.

The net international migration number of 595,000 in 2019 is likely an undercount. The Census Bureau’s 2019 population estimate is from July 1, 2018 to July 1, 2019. This greatly overlaps with the FY2019 data for apprehensions at the southern border, which were measured from October 1, 2018 to September 30, 2019.

In FY2019 there were 850,000 apprehensions at the southern border, the most in a decade. Since so many of these apprehensions were of family units, many of who simply walked across the border in large groups with the intention of turning themselves in, normal Border Patrol operations were disrupted and the cartels took advantage of this to smuggle other illegal aliens over different areas of the border.

We don’t know how many crossed successfully and made it to the U.S. interior. We do know that before the Trump Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols began to take effect, DHS released into the U.S. interior large numbers of illegal aliens who had been apprehended at the border and briefly detained. Breitbart reported in May 2019 that:

In the last five months, DHS has released 190,500 border crossers and illegal aliens into the interior of the U.S….Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan recently admitted to Congress that “100 percent” of adult border crossers arriving at the southern border with children are being released into the U.S. and eventually being given work permits.

It is unclear how many will eventually remain in the United States, but many did come into the United States during the period covered in the Census Bureau population estimate. Were these recently arrived illegal aliens captured in the one-year snap-shot survey (American Community Survey) used to estimate the increase in the foreign-born? Almost certainly not. That’s understandable. But given what we know about the influx over the southern border in 2018-2019, it doesn't correlate that the United States saw the highest level of illegal immigration in a decade and net international migration dropped by 15%.

Another survey, the Current Population Survey (CPS), which is used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine unemployment rates, also measures net international migration and usually shows higher numbers than the ACS. When the CPS data become available, it will be interesting to see how it compares to the ACS.

When it comes to legal immigration, there have been no changes made by Congress which would have effected annual admissions. Refugee admissions, the only category over which President Trump has the authority to set an annual ceiling, have not dropped significantly enough to account for the Census Bureau's estimated 107,000 decrease in net international migration between 2018 and 2019.

An interesting question is that of migration between Puerto Rico and the United States. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, however, movement between Puerto Rico and the United States is considered international migration, as opposed to movement from one U.S. state to another, which is internal migration. Puerto Rican migration was heavily affected by Hurricane Maria in 2017, when many left the island to come to the United States. The Census Bureau found that in-migration to Puerto Rico was higher than out-migration in 2019, but only by 8,000. Still, this provides a perspective on how net international migration is measured by the Census Bureau.

The bottom line here is this: The Census Bureau estimated that the U.S. population increased from 326,687,501 on July 2018 to 328,239,523 on July 1, 2019. An increase of 1,552,022 in just one year.

The same day as the Census estimate came out, The New York Times wrote that population growth “crept along at its slowest pace in decades.” Times reporter, Neil Vigdor, characterized an increase of 1.6 million people as “stagnancy,” and he quoted Brookings Institution demographer William Frey to reinforce this point.

Frey claimed that the population growth in 2019 was “lower than the Great Depression.” As most people are aware, the Great Depression didn't occur within one year, so it is not a valid comparison – and it’s a silly one to make, at all.

Looking at the years 1929 to 1941, the rates of growth compared to 2019 are very similar, and total year-to-year growth during the period of the Great Depression was lower than it was last year.

The U.S. population in 1929 was 206.5 million less than it is today. That’s why focusing attention only on the rate of growth distorts how much the overall U.S. population is actually growing.

The logic employed by Vigdor and Frey is that the population growth rate must never decrease no matter how large the total population becomes. According to them, total population growth must increase (quite substantially when the population stands at 328 million) every year so that a steady growth rate is maintained. The failure to grow this year at the same rate -- or higher! -- than the last represents a looming crisis that, in their view, can only be overcome by increasing immigration levels.

Frey lamented that the rate of U.S. population growth over the past decade is only 6.7%. To put that into perspective, if the United States grew at 6.7% for the next ten years, we would add another 22.1 million people by 2029.

The Census Bureau could have done a better job contextualizing its 2019 population estimate, though it’s unlikely in any case that The New York Times or Frey would have dealt with it more responsibly. So let's look at some Census Bureau projections based on recent population trends to get a clearer picture of how the U.S. population is expected to grow over the next several decades.

The Census Bureau projected in 2017 that the U.S. population would grow by 80 million by 2060. The Center for Immigration Studies looked at the Census Bureau methodology and estimated that 95% of this growth would be attributable to immigration.

Here's a chart showing how much immigration has added to the U.S. population since 1965, and how much it will add going forward to 2060.

Is it possible that net international migration fell as much from 2018 to 2019 as the Census Bureau estimated? Yes, but given the trend over the past two decades, the massive spike in illegal immigration over the past couple of years, and no reductions to legal admission ceilings (including guest workers), it would be surprising. Subsequent revisions over time will give us a more accurate picture.

It would be great if we could have an informed and intelligent discussion about population growth in the United States. Unfortunately, we're not going to get it in The New York Times or from "noted demographer" William Frey.

U.S. population growth is not "stagnant." That's an absurd characterization. According to the Census Bureau, in the United States there is one birth every 9 seconds; one death every 10 seconds; one net international migrant every 47 seconds; one net gain in population every 26 seconds.

A decrease in the rate of growth does not mean that the population is no longer growing.

The U.S. population is projected to grow well into the foreseeable future, adding 75 million more people over the next 40 years, almost entirely through immigration. Do Americans want that outcome?

ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA

Updated: Tue, Feb 4th 2020 @ 10:25pm EST

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