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Compared to other countries, the United States has a low rate of accepting migrants, despite centuries of immigration. According to Wikipedia, the United States has an about average net migration rate. Other sources put migration rates for many of these countries at even higher levels.

Going into net migration totals, the United States consistently receives about 1.0 million net migrants annually, or 3.3 per thousand growth from immigration. Meanwhile, other countries, especially Canada, have been seeing their migrant flows increase far faster than in the United States.

Also, a study from Yahoo found that the US has one of the lowest immigrant percentages out of countries that with large immigrant population shares despite the largest raw total of immigrants. As a result, countries like Sweden without lengthy immigrant histories have surpassed the United States in terms of population born abroad.

What is causing the US to accept increasingly fewer immigrants per capita compared to most European countries as well as British Commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia?

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    That's interesting considering about how of a big deal immigration has become in the US.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented May 27 at 11:16
  • You assume the inward pressure is there but the US is "accepting fewer" of those they have typically accepted, rather than the migrants themselves increasingly seeing the US as less attractive and migratory pressure therefore redirecting elsewhere.
    – Steve
    Commented May 27 at 12:14
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    The question isn't entirely clear to me: is it asking about factual differences in policy or implementation; why/whether fewer people apply to the US than other places; why US immigration policy is so strict; why the US population/politicians are so hostile to immigration; or what? There are likely to be a huge number of reasons for all of these.
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 27 at 13:07
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    It seems odd to cite Sweden, while ignoring that their very high recent immigration rates have also seen a significant spike in criminal activity. Maybe pick a country with less problems as an example? They exist, but Sweden, specifically, is hardly an immigration success poster child at this point time. Commented May 27 at 15:28
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    This question is a text book example of abusing statistics to show whatever you want. Ignoring the obvious problems with the first link ( negative and positive numbers are not distinguishable in the chart so Ukraine is higher ranked than Poland), but the entire premise is false. Instead of looking at number of migrants compared to arbitrary criteria (such as destination population or size, or land area? How does this even contribute to migrants making a decision?) why not look at the total number of migrants per year and sort where they are going?
    – uberhaxed
    Commented May 27 at 19:40

3 Answers 3

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The U.S. immigration rate is not "low".

The premise of the question is doubtful. There is no reasonable interpretation of the facts in which the U.S. per capita immigration rate is "low" even if it isn't the highest on the planet on a per capita basis.

The U.S. has the highest raw number of foreign born people of any country in the world (50.6 million as of 2020) - Germany is the runner up with 15.8 million immigrants, and at 15.28% of its population, the U.S. is on the high end of immigration per capita. See here.

All 43 other countries in the world other than the U.S., except Canada (with 40.8 million people) and Germany (with 84.6 million people), with populations of 33 million or more have much lower immigration rates than the U.S.: China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Brazil, Bangladesh, Russia, Mexico, Japan, Philippines, Ethiopia, Egypt, Vietnam, Democratic Republic of Congo, Turkey, the U.K., France, Italy, Spain, Iran, Thailand, South Africa, Tanzania, Myanmar, Columbia, Kenya, Taiwan, South Korea, Argentina, Algeria, Uganda, Iraq, Sudan, Poland, Morocco, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Angola, Peru, Malaysia, and Mozambique.

The U.S. has 335.9 million people, so all countries other than Canada and Germany with higher per capita immigration rates have less than 10% of the U.S. population and less than the 39 million people who live in California (which has a higher immigration rate than either Canada or Germany).

Greece, Portugal, Estonia, and Denmark also have lower immigration rates than the U.S.

Some of these countries don't welcome immigration and others can't attract it. For example, international scientists don't want to relocate to China:

enter image description here

Via CSIS.

No countries in Latin America (excluding small island dependencies and French Guinea which is in the E.U.) or Africa or Southeast Asia or East Asia (apart from the city-state dependencies of Macau and Hong Kong, and the city-state of Singapore) have immigration rates remotely as high as the U.S.

The percentage of the population that is foreign born is a better measure of the response of immigration to policy because year to year immigration is highly responsive to the economy.

For example, the U.S. had net emigration to Mexico from 2009 to 2014, due to the "Great Recession" flowing from the financial crisis and had exceedingly low immigration in 2020 due to COVID. But, those year to year shifts are not the result of changes in U.S. immigration policy.

Distinguishing factors of most countries with higher immigration rates

In Europe, many immigrants are from fellow E.U. countries which are in a free travel union with each other, and those that are geographically small have high percentages of immigrant residents, like Vatican City, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Andorra, and Luxembourg. (Some of these are not strictly speaking E.U. members, but are sovereign enclaves surrounded on all sides by E.U. members with relatively free travel to and from the E.U.)

If fellow E.U. citizens were excluded from immigration figures, all E.U. countries would have much lower immigration rates, and the E.U. would have much lower immigration rates than the U.S.

For example, only 14.9% of people in Germany were born outside an E.U. member country. About 3.4% of people in Germany are Turkish and 1.5% are Russian. Fewer people in Germany were born outside the E.U. than the percentage of people in the U.S. who were born outside the U.S.

In the same way, if people who lived in a U.S. state where they weren't born were counted as immigrants, the U.S. immigration rate would be vastly higher. Only 58.5 percent of Americans aged 25 or older currently reside in the state where they were born, although this varies considerably from state to state.

enter image description here

In some cases, the "immigrants" are residents of geographically small, low population dependent territories with no immigration limits with a home country, like the Tokelau, British Virgin Islands, Falkland Islands, United States Virgin Islands, the Cook Islands, the Cayman Islands, Sint Maarten, Aruba, Isle of Man, Guam, American Samoa, French Guiana, New Caledonia, Macau, and Hong Kong. If immigration to these dependencies were blended into their colonial power and citizens of that colonial power were excluded, they would have much lower immigration rates.

Macau and Hong Kong were also, until recently, European colonies with immigration from their old colonial masters in addition to their current People's Republic of China sovereign leading to a similar dynamic.

Likewise, Kazakhstan is the only country in Central Asia or the former Soviet sphere of influence with more immigrants per capita than the U.S. (19.88%), almost all of whom are from other countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union which it was a part of prior to 1989 (75% Russian, and with the rest mostly Ukrainian and Uzbek). Prior to 1989, less than 2% of people in Kazakhstan counted as "immigrants" to the U.S.S.R.

Many countries with higher rates of immigration than the U.S. on a percentage basis are oil-rich states with large temporary migrant worker populations, like UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, as oil money makes it unnecessary for the native born population to do lots of the work necessary in the economy. Most of these immigrants are genuinely temporary workers and are not making the oil-rich country where they work their permanent home. From the link:

Today, migrants account for an average of 70 percent of the employed population in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and over 95 percent of private sector workers in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Some of the rest are geographically small like Singapore, a city-state with large immigrant populations from nearby countries. People born ten miles from the city-state limits of Singapore, for example, are still counted as "immigrants." See generally this description of immigration and demographics in Singapore (implying that citizenship and permanent residency is granted much less readily to people who are not ethnically Chinese in Singapore).

Select countries with higher immigration rates considered

Countries with higher immigration than the U.S. with more complicated stories to tell include Norway (15.72%), EU member Ireland (17.64%), EU member Germany (18.81%), Canada (21.33%), Israel (22.57%), Lebanon (25.09%), New Zealand (28.65%), Switzerland (28.79%), Australia (30.14%), and Jordan (33.89%).

The gap is pretty modest in these countries, with only one having more than double the number of immigrants per capita as the U.S. The reasons for this are varied and individualized.

Heavily refugee based immigration

Several countries have large numbers of immigrants because they have accepted large numbers of refugees.

Norway's foreign born population percentage has roughly quadrupled in the last 30 years. The ten most common countries of origin of immigrants residing in Norway are Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, Somalia, Germany, Iraq, Syria, Philippines, Pakistan, and Eritrea, but 25% of the immigrants are from one of four migrant groups: Polish, Lithuanians, Swedes and Somalis. Norway's immigration history is largely a product of its recent openness to receiving refugees from select conflicts.

Jordan's high foreign born population, is because refugees from several conflicts provide the main source of immigrants in Jordan whose total population, including immigrants, is 11.1 million people:

Jordan is a home to 2,175,491 registered Palestinian refugees. Out of those 2,175,491 refugees, 634,182 have not been given Jordanian citizenship. Jordan also hosts around 1.4 million Syrian refugees who fled to the country due to the Syrian Civil War since 2011. About 31,163 Yemenis and 22,700 Libyan refugees live in Jordan as of January 2015. There are thousands of Lebanese refugees who came to Jordan when civil strife and war and the 2006 war broke out in their native country. Up to 1 million Iraqis came to Jordan following the Iraq War in 2003. In 2015, their number was 130,911. About 2,500 Iraqi Mandaean refugees have been resettled in Jordan.

A large share of Lebanon's immigrants are refugees, including recent refugees from Syria (about 16% of the population) and long term Palestinian refugees, often in camps where they have resided since 1948 (about 3% of the population). Another 3% are stateless persons other than Palestinian refugees. About 1% are Assyrian Iraqi refugees and about 1% are Kurdish refugees. Lebanon's large refugee population is attributable to its geographic location and the fact that it hasn't had a war on its own territory (apart from border skirmishes between Hezbollah and Israel) for the last 34 years.

Counties with mostly non-refugee based immigration

Other countries have had significant non-refugee based immigration.

Northern Ireland and the Republican of Ireland still have a combined population that is lower than in 1831, before the Potato Famine, and have experienced long, sustained periods of mass emigration due to a weak local economy. The Republic of Ireland adopted a policy of emphasizing and welcoming immigrants very recently, with half of its foreign born population arriving in the last decade, driven, in part, by a perceived shortage of labor. And, it is an E.U. member with lots of people who can migrate to it without leaving the E.U. free travel union. There is also free immigration between Ireland and Northern Ireland (which is no longer part of the E.U.) and this has been true for almost all of the history of the Irish Republic. As a result, there is almost no net immigration between Northern Ireland (a dependency of the U.K.) and the Irish Republic, because almost everyone went to the country of their choice long ago. Roughly half of the foreign born population of the Republic of Ireland was born in an E.U. member country or the U.K., so the percentage of foreign born people in the Republic of Ireland who weren't born in the E.U. or U.K. is much lower than the percentage of foreign born people in the U.S.

Canada has pursued a policy of economic growth through high skilled immigration and investment based immigration, including significant immigration from its neighbor to the south with whom it has free trade and shares a language and a long border. Quebec also provides a low cultural impact destination for French speakers seeking to emigrate. And, Canada, like the U.S. has always been a country whose national identity is rooted in immigration. About 51% of Canadian immigrants are from India, the Philippines, China, the U.K., the U.S., Pakistan, Hong Kong, Italy, Iran, Vietnam, Jamaica, and South Korea, in that order, with the remainder spread amongst a great many countries. English is a primary language or secondary lingua franca in six of those places of origin, French was a secondary lingua franca in one of them, and one more was a former U.S. dependency.

New Zealand and Australia have had similar policies to Canada. But, unlike Canada, until recently, immigration to these countries was limited to Europeans, Canadians, Americans, and in the case of New Zealand, Polynesians (about half of all ethnically Polynesian people in the world, including New Zealand's Polynesian indigenous Maori minority, live in New Zealand).

Countries like Canada and Australia have used selection mechanisms that tilt immigration toward highly educated or skilled workers. In the U.S., only 36% of immigrants have a college degree, while in Canada and Australia, the shares are 65% and 63% respectively. Also, unlike the U.S., the political systems in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand don't have political systems that allow intense minority interests to block reforms that would increase immigration.

Israel has offered a better life to Jews, often in less economically affluent countries with official or historical anti-Jewish policies, for reasons rooted in Zionist ideology.

Switzerland has positioned itself as an internationalist center since before World War II, and its multi-lingual character makes it attractive to people in many French, Italian, and German speaking countries. Until recently, each individual naturalization petition in Switzerland was voted on by the local population in an election, insuring popular approval of the particular people who immigrated by their neighbors.

Germany has a lot of immigration from countries in the E.U. and has allowed significant immigration from Turkey to meet a perceived need to lower skilled young workers, as discussed in the previous section. In part, this has been due to Germany's healthy economy with a strong manufacturing sector creating less skilled jobs.

The U.S. percentage is small, in part, because it is so big

All of these countries, except Germany, are much, much smaller in population than the U.S., which means that substantial immigration flows are not diluted as much as they are in the populace and geographic large United States. Some U.S. states with populations and/or areas comparable to countries with high rates of immigration to which the U.S. is compared, have foreign born populations much higher than the U.S. average:

enter image description here

Immigrants made up over a fifth of the population in four states: California (26.5%), New Jersey (23.2%), New York (22.6%) and Florida (21.1%). Their numbers grew in all four states over the 10-year span.

From the U.S. Census Bureau.

California, New Jersey, and New York each has more immigrants on a per capita basis than Norway, Ireland, Germany, Canada, or Israel. U.S. states with a combined population greater than Germany have more immigrants per capita than Germany.

States with below average percentages of immigrants have lower percentages mostly because immigrants to the U.S. have not chosen to locate there, for the most part, because these places have had fewer economic opportunities and weaker economies.

Few immigrants to the U.S. chose to settle in Maine, Mississippi, or Montana. Idaho has a larger percentage of immigrants than these similar states, in part, because it has a small total population but is the center of Basque immigration to the U.S. for some reason. Nevada has more residents who were born outside the U.S. than it does residents who were born in Nevada.

U.S. immigration politics

Many people are prevented from immigrating to the U.S. by legal immigration restrictions, mostly from Latin America, especially Mexico which shares a long border with the U.S., free trade, and used to include a large part of the current territory of the U.S., and the Philippines, which used to be a U.S. dependency. In both of these cases, and in many other cases, this is driven in part by political resistance to more low skilled immigration, and in part, by Congressional gridlock over immigration reforms.

Notably, political support for further immigration in the U.S. tends to be highest in the places with the most immigrants, while political opposition to further immigration in the U.S. tends to be strongest in the places with the fewest immigrants. Political opposition to immigration in the U.S. is driven more by fear and perceptions of immigrants, than by the lived experience of high levels of immigration. But, like the E.U., freedom of travel within the U.S. prevents different states from adopting different immigration policies that are very effective.

According to the Financial Times in August of 2022 (paywalled):

A majority of Americans (66%) say they would prefer to either increase the rate of immigration or keep it the same, according to Gallup. A minority — 31% — want to decrease it. But here’s the catch: Voters who oppose immigration care about the issue much more deeply than voters who support immigration. And their willingness to vote on this issue in Republican primaries is why many Republican politicians campaign on immigration restriction. Polls also show that voters “trust” Republicans more than Democrats on immigration (37% to 27% in one recent poll), which is why Democrats’ electoral chances suffer when the salience of this issue goes up in the media (e.g., when there’s video on cable news of migrants at the Southern border).

Fortunately, voters are more positive about high-skilled immigration. According to Pew, 78% of voters support high-skilled immigration, including 63% of those who said the country should allow fewer or no immigrants.

Opposition to immigration is more cultural than economic in U.S. politics, although low skilled workers facially appear to be a threat to low skilled U.S. workers (even though economic studies tend to show that this economic impact, while facially plausible, isn't what actually happens). It is one of the few areas of U.S. political life where a conservative person who is xenophobic or racist can be opposed to ethnic diversity and people who are ethnically different from them in a way that is taken seriously and not denounced for having socially unacceptable "racist" views.

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  • Good answer overall: the US has a lot of immigrants. But foreign born people is also an extremely laggy indicator. If you'd look at France in the 1990s, it would like very immigration friendly by it, but that's because it was happily counting people that had been let in in the 50s and 60s to work in factories and after the Algerian War. But legal immigration had already dropped dramatically by then (and the mass illegal type didn't really start until the 2000s). It's an indicator that tracks people 40+ years after the circumstances of their arrival, until their death. Commented May 28 at 15:41
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica But the percentage of foreign born people can and does change fairly rapidly, and the alternative, looking at annual immigration figures has way too much noise (and is much harder to get comparable data upon). To reduce noise you need, maybe ten years at least of raw immigration figures, you have to adjust each year for population, and then you need to average them. Also foreign born percentage, even if due to old immigration, helps capture the political feedback loop. Voters respond to total foreign born population not to this year's particular crop of immigrants.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 28 at 15:50
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica To measure recent trends you can look a change in percentage of foreign born, as I do in the cases of Norway and Ireland, for example, or at major events (e.g. in Jordan and Lebanon) that drive the current foreign born figure.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 28 at 15:53
  • It changes rapidly only when rates increase dramatically. But if those rates drop back to zero, that percentage will still look high. I definitely agree about the "feedback loop" and "sentiment" value of it, but still seems very laggy as a measure of ongoing immigration. A rolling average over 5 years type of indicator would avoid your noise issue, mostly. Sweden's foreign born percentage represents nowhere the same reality as the US's, for example, as those are mosty people that need to be integrated now. Commented May 28 at 15:55
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    @uberhaxed The Census form (at least the long version) asks if you are foreign born. census.gov/acs/www/about/why-we-ask-each-question/citizenship
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 29 at 19:14
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One possible answer, with regards to illegal immigration, is geographic: the EU - another region with high immigration - has a lot more borders to worry about

The aggregate length of border fences at the EU's external borders and within the EU/Schengen area increased from 315 km to 2 048 km between 2014 and 2022 (see Figure 2 below).About 13%, or 1 535 km, of EU external land borders (12 033 km in total) are currently fenced off.**

That compares to 3145km with Mexico (this answer assumes that Canada-sourced illegal immigration is relatively negligible). One should probably disregard UK-France however.

And that even that 12000 km land border length probably fails to take into account landings via Mediterranean crossings, which are a lot more feasible than Pacific or Atlantic crossings.

So to an extent, the US could just be better placed to keep out immigrants and assuming that Europeans would not do the same given the opportunity might be unrealistic. Not when rescue boats are prohibited from docking by some countries. Certainly immigration is a politically divisive issue in Europe as well and seems ready to deliver some increase in power at the EU parliament level.

For example, a rise in right wing representation could make the Parliamentary approval process for people like center-right leaning European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who runs the bloc’s executive arm and is rumored to be seeking another term, a difficult one.

In December, POLITICO reported that in nearly a dozen European countries, including France and Germany, hardline anti-immigration parties, some of them more extreme than the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, are currently topping the polls, or in a close second place.

p.s. To be fair, the European illegal immigration brouhaha is not nearly as constant and voluminous as the news would have it.

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  • It seems a bit cherry picking to exclude the 8891 km US/Canada border but not the 1536 km combined Russia-Finland and Russia-Norway border. The extreme weather and greater difficulty of access by migrants from the south are similar.
    – phoog
    Commented May 31 at 2:04
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Many Americans have the false impression that these carve‐​outs are realistic options for potential immigrants to join American society, but the government’s restrictive criteria render the legal paths available only in the most extreme cases. Even when someone qualifies, annual immigration caps greatly delay and, more frequently, eliminate the immigrant’s chance to come to the United States. Legal immigration is less like waiting in line and more like winning the lottery: it happens, but it is so rare that it is irrational to expect it in any individual case.

This study provides a uniquely comprehensive, jargon‐​free explanation of U.S. rules for legal permanent immigration. Some steps are simple and reasonable, but most steps serve only as unjustified obstacles to immigrating legally. For some immigrants, this restrictive system sends them into the black market of illegal immigration. For others, it sends them to other countries, where they contribute to the quality of life in their new homes. And for still others, it requires them to remain in their homeland, often underemployed and sometimes in danger. Whatever the outcome, the system punishes both the prospective immigrants and Americans who would associate, contract, and trade with them. Congress and the administration can do better, and this paper explains how.

https://www.cato.org/policy-analysis/why-legal-immigration-nearly-impossible

Today, most lawful means of entering the country take years because of overwhelmed immigration agencies, rising levels of global migration and a limit on the number of certain visas, all of which have culminated in a massive backlog of people trying to get to the U.S.

https://www.axios.com/2023/04/06/legal-us-immigration-process-explained

It mostly has to do with the extremely restrictive criteria that the government enforces on people who want to immigrate legally, and the fact that it already has a vast pool of highly-talented immigrants to choose from due to the fact that many of the best universities are in the U.S. Another factor is how agencies are overwhelmed because of the high demand, and they can't accept more.

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