U.S. foreign-born population nears high

The foreign-born population living in the USA has increased so rapidly that it could break a 125-year-old record within the next decade, according to a Pew Research Center report out Monday.

The percentage of people living in the USA who were born outside the country reached 13.7% in 2015 and is projected to hit a record 14.9% in 2025, the report said. The country’s previous high of 14.8% was set in 1890, when waves of Irish, Italian, Polish and other immigrants were coming to the USA.

The findings come at a critical time in the presidential campaign as candidates from both parties debate the proper role of immigration in the country. The foreign-born population represents a growing share of the electorate that Democrats and Republicans court because that voting bloc is big enough to tip presidential elections.

Leading Republicans, including front-runner Donald Trump, say legal and illegal immigration have gotten out of control. Trump and others say the country needs to limit legal immigration, and all the GOP candidates  push for increased border security.

Democrats, led by Hillary Clinton, have adopted a more welcoming message, calling for protections for undocumented immigrants living in the country and an immigration system that helps some groups of immigrants enter the country.

The term “foreign-born” includes naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents, visa holders and undocumented immigrants.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a group that supports immigrant rights in the USA, said the influx of foreigners proves the USA remains a beacon of hope across the world, and politicians should accept that role for the country.

“The pure politics of this is that candidates from whichever party should view these numbers as the next generation of voters,” Noorani said. “They should remember that what they say now will be taken into account by future generations of U.S. citizens.”

Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for lower levels of immigration, said Trump and others tap into a legitimate fear that immigration levels are getting out of control.

He uses the example of the late 19th century, when the USA hit its peak of those who were born in another country, creating an overabundance of workers competing for limited jobs. That prompted many Americans to call for an immigration slowdown and proved harmful to immigrants who struggled to get ahead, a situation Beck said is happening again.

“This has been our point all along: If you want to have a good situation for immigrants, there’s a threshold that you’ve got to keep it below,” Beck said. “We know what happened last time. It was a very difficult time. And it’s not just about the American-born being hostile toward the foreign-born, but the inability of the foreign-born to get ahead, to live the American Dream.”

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