Migration Trends of the Future

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John Moore / Getty Images

A new U.S. citizen at a naturalization ceremony held at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office in New York City, on May 17, 2013.

The United States has been shaped in very large part by surges of migration, from the Scots-Irish who streamed over in vast numbers in the dozen years before the American Revolution until today. These surges have been largely unexpected and have lasted just one or two generations before ending unexpectedly. Over the past 40 years we have seen two such surges—large-scale immigration from Latin America and Asia and internal migration of Americans from high-tax, high-cost states such as New York and California to low-tax, low-cost states such as Florida and Texas. People are less likely to move in times of economic distress, and these movements have slowed or ended since the onset of recession in 2007. For example, there has been no net migration since then from Mexico, formerly our No. 1 source of immigrants. But our future will continue to be shaped by the mass movements of people who are pursuing dreams or escaping nightmares.

Although few demographers predict mass migration from Africa, incomes in some African countries are growing rapidly enough that more people can afford airfare and have developed aptitudes suited to living in America. Other African countries are in the turmoil of civil war or decades of dictatorship, from which hundreds of thousands will try to escape. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, could fall into this category if current violence expands. Look for more immigration from Africa even as immigration from Latin America tails off.

On the domestic front, ever since it was admitted to the Union in 1850, California has grown faster than the national average. But immigration to California has been slackening, and domestic outflow from the high-tax, high-housing-price Golden State started in 1990 and may increase. So look for California, for the first time in history, to start growing more slowly than the nation overall. And Los Angeles County, the locus of a vast internal migration from the 1940s to the 1970s and of a vast stream of immigration from the 1970s on, could even decline in population.

Turning inward, the Great Plains stands poised for repopulation, but in metropolitan areas, not farming country. The region was settled in a rush in the late 19th century and then, when farm prices sagged and dust clouds formed, started shedding people. Vast numbers left for California after World War II, and farm counties from the Dakotas to Texas emptied as mechanization reduced the need for farm labor. That trend may now be reversed. Farm counties will never again reach their 1940 population levels, but the huge metropolitan areas of Texas—Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, San Antonio—are among the fastest growing in the country. Look for similar growth in business-friendly medium-size and small metro areas farther north—Oklahoma City; Wichita, Kans.; Omaha; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Fargo, N.D.

Finally, we can also possibly expect an acceleration in immigration by high-skilled foreigners, mostly from Asia but from other parts of the globe as well. This depends on whether Congress amends immigration law to increase the number of high-skill and high-income migrants. A bill passed by the Senate last spring goes some distance in that direction but not nearly as far as the immigration laws of our Anglosphere cousins Canada and Australia. A Canadian diplomat recently pleaded with me, more than half-seriously, “Please don’t copy our immigration laws.” Canada wants those high-skill people in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto.

People join mass migrations not just for economic reasons but also because of personal choice and the forces of history. Congress can enact laws and analysts can spot trends, but the decisions of large numbers of people to move have shaped our nation time and again in one unexpected way after another.