Americans hugely overestimate what portion of the population is foreign-born

Slate points out that immigrants were a larger portion of the U.S. population 100 years ago. This is pretty intuitive, considering how the late-19th and early-20th century waves of immigration are widely taught. However, we are relatively close to that historical high today (13 percent as opposed to 15 percent).

An interesting factoid in the immigration debate is that Americans hugely overestimate how much of the U.S. population is made of immigrants. I’ve only ever seen this question asked by one survey, the Transatlantic Trends Immigration survey (the latest results for which are 2011– they didn’t seem to release one in 2012).

To go over the facts again: The foreign-born population of the U.S. in recent years has been around 13 percent.


foreign born pop smaller

People think that somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of the people living in the United States are foreign born — about three times what the number actually is!

Two things: a) it would be nice to see the distributions on these guesses rather than just the mean (though you have to have a lot of people guessing very high, and very few people guessing under the real figure, to get that number); and b) this phenomenon is clearly not limited to the U.S., since people in the European countries surveyed also are way off on their own foreign-born populations.

But, this shows how successfully the idea of the U.S. being overrun by immigrants has taken hold. It’s worth wondering what would happen to people’s views on immigration if their perception of how many immigrants there are was generally more correct.


Interestingly, the 35-40 percent guess is correct… if you’re just looking at America’s Latino population.

Dividing the foreign-born Hispanic population (18.8 million) by total Hispanic population (50.7 million) gets you about 37 percent.

hispanic foreign-born



  1. Pingback: Baby boomers tend to take a harder line on immigration. They also grew up in an America with many fewer immigrants. « Immigration Reheated

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