U.S. and Texas Immigration Background (Part 1)


Given its global, economic, security, and humanitarian concerns, it’s no wonder that immigration has been a topic of debate for decades. Immigration has also long been a source of partisan fighting, but the upcoming general election coupled with federal inaction on policy solutions has intensified the landscape.

This brief will provide a panoramic view of immigration in the U.S. and Texas and discuss encounters at the Southwest Border.

Before delving into the intricacies of immigration policy, it’s crucial to recognize the human element that motivates lawmakers and citizens alike to seek tangible solutions. Lawmakers bear the duty of not only alleviating suffering but also fostering opportunities for all. This can be achieved in a way that allows people to study, work, pay taxes, and contribute to their community while also maintaining border security and prioritizing enforcement so that policies target criminals, not families. 

Migration is a perpetual, global phenomenon

Today’s conservative politicians have put a misplaced emphasis on the number of illegal border crossings with little nuance or deviation — declaring victory when crossings slow and a “crisis” when they inevitably rise again. Some even have an impractical goal of zero crossings. In reality, migration is as old as history; humans have always been on the move. 

Recently, the Congressional Budget Office released its projections for immigration for the next three decades. On net (the number of people who enter the United States in a given year minus the number who leave in that year), the number of people immigrating to the U.S. will be 3.3 million in 2024, 2.6 million in 2025, and 1.8 million in 2026. Then, the CBO projects 1.1 million people on average per year immigrating to the U.S. over the 2027–2054 period.

For centuries, historical trends of U.S. immigration demonstrate peaks and valleys and varying origin countries, influenced by a myriad of domestic and international factors, both legislative and otherwise, including economic conditions, warfare, and various forms of severe instability.

At the very least, lawmakers must create policy rooted in reality – that U.S. immigration is perpetual, with peaks followed by troughs. 

Texas has the 2nd largest immigrant population of any state

That being said, the U.S. and the state of Texas have a stake in managing incoming migration. 

  • The U.S. has more immigrants than any other nation in the world. In 2023, the U.S. foreign-born population was 46.7 million, or 14% of the total population.
  • Texas has the 2nd largest immigrant population of any state. In 2022, the Texas foreign-born population was 5.1 million, 17.2% of the Texas population. The majority of them immigrated from Latin America, with the two largest groups being from Central America and Mexico, respectively. 

2022 ​​U.S. Census Bureau data show that just three states house nearly half (45%) of the country’s immigrants: California (23%), Texas (11%) and Florida (10%). Immigrants tend to be concentrated in certain states in part because of certain employment categories, such as agriculture or technology jobs, or nearby family members.

Who are today’s immigrants?

Latin Americans are the largest group in the U.S. and Texas

According to 2022 Census data, the largest share of U.S. immigrants were from: 

  • Latin America (53%), 
  • followed by Asia (30%), 
  • then Europe (9%). 

In Texas, the largest share of immigrants were from: 

  • Latin America (65%) (the largest share being from Central America and Mexico, respectively), 
  • followed by Asia (24%), 
  • then Africa (6%). 

Millions are working, growing the economy, and paying taxes

  • In the U.S. immigrants made up 18.6% of the labor force with 29.9 million immigrants working in the U.S. in 2023. 
  • In Texas, immigrants make up 22% of the Texas labor force with 3.2 million immigrants working in Texas in 2022. 

Latest data by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the most common industry for foreign-born workers to work was educational and health services (classified by the North American Industry Classification System), which is also true for native-born workers. The industry with the largest share of immigrant workers relative to its size is construction.

A recent report by Every Texan examined the wages earned and taxes paid by newly arriving immigrants. They found that for each 1,000 newly arrived immigrant workers their predicted aggregate annual wages paid is $20 million — a direct benefit to the economy in added spending power. For each 1,000 workers, initial state and local tax revenues are predicted to increase by $2.6 million. These numbers only increase as time passes. 

Majority of immigrants in the U.S. have lawful status

Approximately three-quarters of the foreign-born population live in the U.S. legally — the majority of which are naturalized citizens (granted U.S. citizenship). Most of the rest acquired legal permanent residency status, also known as a green card. In 2021, 61% of green cards went to immigrants sponsored by family, 26% were employment-based, 8% went to refugees and asylum seekers, and 2% were granted through the visa diversity lottery. The smallest number are in the U.S. on temporary visas. 

Without getting into its requirements, processing times, and financial and personal costs, it’s important to note the difficult path to becoming a naturalized citizen. For example, an immigrant from Mexico spends an average of 10.4 years as a permanent resident before becoming a citizen, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Around a quarter of immigrants are in the U.S. without lawful status

The unauthorized immigrant population in the United States was estimated to be 10.5 million in 2021, just 3% of the total U.S. population and around a quarter of the foreign-born population. Between 2007 and 2021, the unauthorized immigrant population decreased by 14%, while the lawful immigrant population grew by more than 29%. The Pew Research Center uses U.S. Census data on the total foreign-born population, then subtracts the number of lawful immigrants to arrive at these estimates.

Unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. come from many parts of the world. According to the Pew Research Center, Mexico accounted for 39% of the nation’s unauthorized immigrants in 2021, the smallest share since the 1990s. After Mexico, the countries of origin with the largest unauthorized immigrant populations in the U.S. in 2021 in order were:

  • El Salvador
  • India
  • Guatemala
  • Honduras

Texas has the second-highest population of both legal and undocumented immigrants. About six in ten unauthorized immigrants live in 20 major metro areas across the United States – with the biggest populations in New York, Los Angeles, and Houston, where the largest legal immigrant populations also exist. These individuals are parents to over 5 million children, with the overwhelming majority born in the U.S. and holding U.S. citizenship. 

There are many reasons a family may decide to migrate to the U.S. illegally. For example, policies like the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” which required asylum seekers at the U.S. border to wait in Mexico while their cases were processed, left people stranded in dangerous encampments for months, or sometimes years, waiting for their case to be heard. 

Encounters at the Southwest Border

Border encounters at the Southwest border (includes Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California U.S.-Mexico border) are one method of measuring unauthorized immigration trends. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (USCBP) defines encounters as expulsions, in which migrants are immediately expelled to their home country or last country of transit, and apprehensions, in which migrants are detained in the U.S. This does not include the growing share of the immigrants that entered the U.S. legally but overstayed their visas. 

Annual Encounters

The COVID-19 pandemic, which stalled migration levels worldwide, slowed the uptick of encounters in FY 2019. Then total USBP encounters at the Southwest border markedly rose to nearly 1.7 million encounters in FY 2021, 2.4 million in FY 2022, and 2.5 million in FY 2023 (USCBP). Many factors, including global migration trends, economic conditions, violence, and changes in U.S. immigration policies, have contributed to this. 

In FY 2023, Texas experienced roughly 38% of all Southwest border encounters. USCBP’s El Paso region, which encompasses El Paso, Texas and the state of Arizona, experienced the highest share of crossings. The second highest was USCBP’s Del Rio region in Texas. 

Recent years show encounter trends among three migrant origin country categories: Mexico, the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), and what USBP categorizes as historically atypical countries.

Monthly Encounters

The numbers that typically garner the most attention are monthly migrant encounters, in part because of its related concerns around the safe and humane processing for migrants, as well as providing sufficient local resources for shelter and assistance. In December 2023, USCBP recorded the highest monthly encounters at the Southwest border on record at roughly 302,000. Most recently, in January 2024 crossings dropped by around 42% from December. This, again, illustrates that encounters ebb and flow, for reasons typically beyond any single factor.

A note on Operation Lone Star

Apprehensions made by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), Texas Military Department (TMD), and Texas Game Wardens of Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) under Operation Lone Star (OLS) are not in addition to the encounters figures above. Even if OLS personnel apprehend or detain an individual for state criminal trespassing charges, they eventually have to refer the individual to USCBP. It is yet to be determined if and how this process will be changed when SB 4, 88(4), which creates a state offense for a non-citizen to enter the state from a foreign nation from anywhere other than a lawful port of entry, takes effect on March 5, 2024. 


As this brief has demonstrated, migration is a part of human existence. It is a losing battle to solely enact policies that aim to stop or prevent migration. Additionally, global factors beyond the U.S. government’s control directly impact migration levels. 

Part 2 of this series further explores who today’s immigrants are by dispelling myths about immigration spread by Texas officials. 

Part 3 will explore current federal and state immigration laws with a focus on potential  solutions.