Who are Americans? And where do they come from? The U.S. has the largest number of global diaspora members of any country in the world. Indeed, virtually all Americans have immigrant roots — and these roots are a quintessential part of the country’s narrative.
My colleague Jeanna Batalova at the Migration Policy Institute was able to determine the size of U.S.-based diaspora populations by analyzing the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS samples a small percentage of the U.S. population annually on an on-going basis, sampling nearly three million addresses each year. The survey measures the U.S. population’s changing social and economic characteristics and offers researchers more detailed and fresher information than the decennial census. The ACS asks two questions that allowed my colleague to estimate the size of U.S.-based diaspora populations: country of birth and ancestry. These are how the questions appear on the 2012 ACS form:
Jeanne was able to estimate the size of U.S.-based diaspora populations by adding the estimated population born in a particular foreign country with the people who list that same country as their country of ancestry but were born elsewhere.
However, asking people about their ancestry is not a straightforward question. The ACS leaves it up to each individual who fills out the form to decide how they define their own ancestry, though the instructions say that the term “refers to the person’s ethnic origin or descent, ‘roots,’ or heritage[…It] may also refer to the country of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before they arrived in the United States.” Respondents can decide to leave the question blank, fill in “the United States,” or put down “Germany” because their great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Germany. Though the question leaves a lot open to interpretation, it reveals how many people self-identify themselves as part of specific diaspora populations. Self-identification is critical, since only those who recognize or value their ancestral connection to a place other than the one in which they reside are part of that country’s diaspora. The ACS allows respondents to list up to two different ancestries. The survey does not accept people’s religious affiliation as a valid ancestry response (i.e. Jewish or Coptic Christian).
The chart below shows Jeanne’s findings, ranking the twenty largest diaspora populations in the United States and provides estimates of the number of people in each of these communities.
Estimates of the Top Twenty Largest Diaspora Populations in the U.S. [*]
The Census Bureau makes the results of the ACS publicly available, and government agencies, private sector companies, and nonprofit organizations rely on this data to inform all sorts of different decisions, from how to draw congressional district lines to where to locate a new big box store.
Given the varied and important ways that census data is used, some diaspora organizations invest in outreach and educational campaigns to ensure that the diaspora populations with which they are affiliated know how to fill out the form correctly and will identify themselves as being part of that ancestry group. Believing that the number of Americans of Iranian descent was two or three times larger than reported in the 2000 decennial census, a number of organizations put aside their sharp political differences to form the Iranians Count 2010 Census Coalition to increase their influence and recognition within American society. The group produced a number of educational materials, including this humorous public service announcement, which has been viewed on YouTube more times than estimated size of the Iranian-American population in 2000:
The U.S. Census Bureau also partnered with a number of different organizations in 2010—including many diaspora-centric groups—in part to help reach historically under counted populations. Although the Census data is not flawless, it shows the richness of the country’s immigrant heritage. The composition of the United States’ diaspora communities reflects our country’s long tradition of embracing immigrants.
The vast majority of U.S. immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth century came from Europe, and their descents compose nine of America’s fifteen largest diaspora groups. In decreasing size order, these countries are Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. Despite their size, a relatively small proportions of the member of these European-descendant diaspora populations retain active ties with their countries of ancestry.[i] While U.S.-European bilateral immigration continues through today, only a small percent of U.S.-based diaspora members of European descent are foreign born. In the case of the German diaspora community, for example, just one percent of its members were born outside of the United States. Likewise, although the U.S. is home to nearly half a million Polish-born individuals, they represent just five percent of the Polish-American diaspora, meaning that roughly 95 percent of Americans who claim to be of Polish descent were born in the United States. Formerly the largest U.S. immigrant group, European-born immigrants have seen their numbers decline in the United States over the past 50 years (notwithstanding a period of growth after the collapse of the Soviet Union).[ii] Though the number of these immigrants fell by only several million in numerical terms, the share of all European immigrants in the United States plummeted from nearly 75 percent in 1960 to 12 percent in 2011. At the same time, Eastern European immigrants have represented a larger share of that smaller pie during the past two decades. In 2011, the top five countries of origin for the 4.9 million European immigrants in the United States were as follows: the United Kingdom (685,000, or 14 percent), Germany (608,000, 12 percent), Poland (462,000, 9 percent), Russia (399,000, 8 percent), and Italy (374,000, 8 percent). [iii]
In contrast, immigration to the United States from countries in the Western Hemisphere and Asia has grown significantly in the past half century, and the diaspora communities from these regions include proportionately more foreign-born members than the diaspora communities of European heritage. Among the U.S.’s twenty largest diaspora groups, Mexico, Puerto Rico,* China, the Philippines, India, El Salvador, Cuba, Vietnam, and Korea each have more than one million foreign-born members. Analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau data shows that 34 percent of Mexican-Americans, 30 percent of Puerto Ricans living in incorporated U.S. territory,* 42 percent of Chinese-Americans, 50 percent of Filipino-Americans, 53 percent of Indian-Americans, 56 percent of Salvadorian-Americans, 52 percent of Cuban-Americans, 63 percent of Vietnamese-Americans, and 59 percent of Korean-Americans were born outside of the United States.[iv]
These first-generation immigrants are more likely than those farther removed to be actively engaged with their countries of origin; many have close family members there, own property, and follow social and political events closely. The World Bank estimated that in 2011, U.S.-based diaspora members sent nearly $51.6 billion in remittances–representing a 0.3 percent share of the country’s overall GDP–to their relatives and friends overseas.[v] In addition to sending remittances, U.S.-based diaspora members make investments, establish or support businesses, make charitable contributions, volunteer, support political parties, campaign for human rights and good governance, promote post-conflict reconciliation, and (in countries where such activities are permitted to non-residents) vote and run for office in their countries of heritage. Active diaspora populations contribute to their homelands in a variety of ways and occupy different policy arenas, including in the realms of development, democratization, and security.[vi]
While some tiny diaspora populations have an outsized influence on their countries of heritage, other enormous diaspora populations have virtually no influence on their countries of heritage. The truth is that the size of a country’s diaspora population matters a lot less than the level of engagement of its members.
About the Author: Susanna Groves is an Associate Policy Analyst in the Migration Policy Institute’s Migrants, Migration, and Development and Refugee Policy Program. She earned a master in public policy degree from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a BA from the University of Michigan.
The contents of this blog are the sole responsibility of the author and its ideas and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of International diaspora Engagement Alliance, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Migration Policy Institute, or any of their partners.
[*] Notes to the Table
“Diaspora” includes individuals born in the country, as well as those who cited that origin as their ancestry, race, and/or ethnicity, regardless of where they were born. Ancestry refers to a person’s ethnic origin or descent, “roots,” or heritage; or the place of birth of the person, the person’s parents, or ancestors before their arrival in the United States. The figure for the Irish diaspora include individuals who identified as Irish as well as Irish-Scotch and Scotch-Irish (the latter two groups combined accounted for about 5.4 million). Estimates of the United Kingdom’s diaspora include individuals who identified their ancestry as British, English, Scottish, Welsh, British Isles, or Anglo. The figure for the Puerto Rican diaspora refers to all born in Puerto Rico regardless of their U.S. citizenship status. Estimates of the French diaspora exclude individuals who identified their ancestry as Basque. Estimates of the Chinese diaspora estimates include Hong Kong but not Taiwan. Estimates of the Canadian diaspora include individuals who identified as Canadian and as French Canadian. Data made available through the Minnesota Population Center: Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek, Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database], Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011.