Migration data in Northern America
Northern America1 has historically been one of the principal destination regions of international migrants worldwide. According to statistics published by the United Nations (UN) Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), the United States has long been the top country of destination in the world, with a total stock of over 50 million international migrants as of 2020 (UNDESA, 2021).
Northern America is also a prominent destination region for refugees and asylum seekers. In recent years, inflows of Venezuelan refugees and migrants to the region have added to complex mixed flows of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees arriving from Nicaragua and countries of Northern Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) in particular.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the region has witnessed drastic changes in mobility and migration patterns beginning in 2020, partly due to various restrictions implemented by countries in the region to contain the spread of the virus. Some of these measures, among others, have included interruptions to the issuance of visas and residence permits, border closures, health and sanitation requirements as well as temporary entry restrictions for certain nationalities (IOM, 2021).
The year 2020 also saw significant displacement events in the region due to disasters. The United States registered historic levels of new displacements mainly due to heavy rains and flooding, while both the United States and Canada registered significant numbers of new internal displacements because of wildfires. Altogether, more than 1.7 million new internal displacements due to disaster were registered in both countries in 2020 (Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), 2021).
The region has demonstrated strong capacities in the collection, analysis and dissemination of migration data and information. Both countries have specialized governmental authorities who regulate the entry and stay of foreigners in their territories and who collect a wide array of administrative and other data on migrant populations. National statistics and census offices in both countries collect a depth of data and information on migrant populations through population censuses and other demographic and thematic household surveys. Northern America also benefits from the presence of a wide array of research and academic institutions that collect and publish data, analyses and studies on migration dynamics to, within and out of the region (Migration Policy Institute (MPI), 2020).
Note: total figures on the map do not include Bermuda, Greenland and Saint Pierre and Miquelon.Back to top
From March 2020 onwards, the COVID-19 pandemic has generated a strong impact on human mobility and migration trends in the region, due in part to numerous border closures and other restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the virus. For example, the number of international arrivals of foreigners registered in the United States decreased by 76 per cent from 2019 to 2020, from 79.44 million to just 19.45 million (United States National Travel and Tourism Office (NTTO), 2021). Arrivals of foreigners and nationals to Canadian territory decreased by 78 per cent between 2019 and 2020, from 55.2 million to just 22.9 million (Statistics Canada, n.d. [12 Jun. 2021]).
There are also indications that the pandemic has impacted migrant arrivals to both countries. For example, the number of immigrant and non-immigrant visas issued by the United States in 2020 reached just 4.25 million, a decrease of 54 per cent compared to the 9.2 million issued in 2019, a decrease of 56 per cent compared to the 9.6 million issued in 2018 and a 58 per cent decrease compared to the 10.2 million issued in 2017 (United States Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, 2021). In Canada, the number of applications and extensions approved for temporary residents dropped from 2.42 million in 2019 to 1.26 million in 2020, a decrease of 38 per cent, while authorizations and visas issued for permanent residents declined from 343,297 in 2019 to just 176,259 in 2020, a decrease of 49 per cent (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), n.d. [12 Jun. 2021]).
Apprehensions of migrants recorded at the southwest United States border with Mexico also appeared to be affected, at least temporarily, during the pandemic. During 2020, a total of 547,825 apprehensions were recorded at the southwest United States border, a decrease of 68 per cent compared to the 921,812 apprehensions recorded in 2019 (United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP), n.d. [11 Jun. 2021]. The most significant drop in monthly apprehensions witnessed in 2020, compared with years prior, appeared to take place during the first five months of the pandemic (March-July) (Ibid) (it should be noted, however, that apprehensions in 2019 were at their highest levels since 2007) (Pew Research Center, 2019).
During the first months of 2021 there has been a reversal of certain dynamics seen in 2020. For example, there were 711,784 apprehensions registered at the southwest United States border during the first five months of 2021 – including a high presence of unaccompanied and separated children from Northern Central America – thus already exceeding the total number of apprehensions registered in 2020 (United States CBP, n.d. [11 Jun. 2021]. Data also show that international arrivals to the United States are also on the rise in 2021 (United States NTTO, 2021).
The importance of migrants in supporting economies and social infrastructures in the region also became increasingly more evident during the pandemic, highlighted by their representation in essential sectors. In the United States, for example, it was estimated that by 2018 more than 2.6 million immigrants were employed as health workers, constituting 18 per cent of the 14.7 million total health workers that year (MPI, 2020). Approximately 70 per cent of migrants in the United States work in critical infrastructure sectors (Center for Migration Studies, 2020). On average, between 2014 and 2016, 73 per cent of agricultural workers in the United States were migrants (United States Department of Agriculture, n.d. [12 Jun. 2021]). Due to their importance in certain sectors, the United States also made exemptions in entry restrictions for certain temporary migrant worker categories during the pandemic – for example, the number of H-2A visas for temporary agricultural workers issued in calendar year 2020 reached 216,389, an increase over numbers witnessed in 2019 (207,467) (United States Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, 2021).
Northern America serves overwhelmingly as a destination region for international migrants from every region of the world. About one in five (58.71 million) of the 281 million migrants in the world lived in Northern America in 2020 (UNDESA, 2020). Specifically, the United States both currently and for many decades has been the main destination country for international migrants worldwide, topping the list of destination countries since UNDESA began to collect and publish statistics on the global stock of international migrants in 1960 (Ibid). As of 2020, a total of 50.63 million migrants were living in the United States, constituting 86 per cent of the total foreign-born population in the region in this year (the other 14 per cent were located in Canada) (Ibid).
The main regions of origin of migrants in Northern America are Latin America and the Caribbean (25.4 million or 43.2% of the total migrant population), followed by Asia (17.55 million, or 29.9%), Europe (6.87 million, or 11.7%) and Africa (3.27 million, or 5.6%) (Ibid). Of the 25.4 million migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean living in the region in 2020, 85 per cent (or 21.7 million) were from Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean (Ibid). The top five countries of origin for international migrants residing in the United States as of 2020 (excluding overseas territories) were: Mexico (10.94 million), India (3.44 million), China (2.88 million), the Philippines (2.70 million) and Viet Nam (1.59 million) (Ibid). Migrants from these five countries together accounted for nearly 43 per cent of the total migrant population in the United States in 2020 (Ibid). In Canada, the top five countries of origin as of 2020 were: India (720,083), China (699,190), the Philippines (633,547), the United Kingdom (537,504) and the United States (273,226), altogether accounting for 30 per cent of the total migration population in Canada in 2020 (Ibid).
Among the 58.71 million migrants in North America in 2020, 48.2 per cent were men and 51.8 per cent were women (Ibid). The sex distribution among migrants in the region has remained relatively the same during the last three decades (Ibid). In terms of age, in the same year, five per cent of the migrant population in the region was between 0-14 years, while 18 per cent were between 15-29 years, 29 per cent between 30-44 years, 27 per cent between 45-59 years and 22 per cent over 60 years of age (Ibid).
Since 2009 the immigration rate of immigrants from Asia has exceeded that of Latin America and the Caribbean in the United States (driven by high rates of immigration from China, India and the Philippines in particular). On the other hand, although the absolute number of migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean continues to increase, the rate of immigration of migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean has slowed (Pew Research Center, 2020). This is mainly due to the decrease in the number of arrivals of Mexican migrants to the United States together with notable return migration of a greater number of Mexican nationals from the United States to Mexico in this period. Between 2010 and 2020, the population of Mexican migrants in Northern America overall decreased from 12.24 million to 10.94 million (Pew Research Center, 2020; Pew Research Center, 2015; UNDESA, 2020). Despite the decline in immigration of Mexican migrants to the United States, there are several countries of origin in Latin America and the Caribbean that have seen an increase in the number of their nationals living in the United States in recent years, including, among others, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, with an increase of 114 per cent (from 236,000 to 506,000) between 2015 and 2020, Honduras, with an increase of 27 per cent (from 607,457 to 773,045) in the same period, Guatemala, with an increase of 17 per cent (699,399 to 817,604) and Cuba, with an increase of 14 per cent (1.06 million to 1.21 million) (UNDESA, 2020).
Migration to the United States and Canada occurs under an extensive variety of modalities, both temporary and permanent, voluntary and forced, consisting mostly of migration for economic reasons, but also family reunification, international student migration as well as asylum seekers and refugees (Council on Foreign Relations, 2020; IRCC, 2020; Pew Research Center, 2020; IOM, 2020).
Migration in the region also occurs through regular and irregular channels. As of 2018, according to different estimates by the Pew Research Center, MPI and the United States government, it was estimated that there were between 11 and 11.4 million migrants residing in the United States in an irregular situation, approximately half from Mexico, while the occurrence of irregular migration in Canada is estimated to be significantly lower (IOM, 2020; United States Department of Homeland Security, 2021; MPI, 2020; Pew Research Center, 2021).
Refugees and asylum seekers
According to UNHCR data, it is estimated that by the end of 2020 the United States hosted more than 1.27 million refugees and asylum seekers while Canada hosted more than 205,000 (UNHCR, n.d. [10 Jun. 2021]). Both historically and currently the United States and Canada have been the two principal refugee resettlement countries in the world, with a total of 803,527 refugees resettled to both countries since 2003 until the end of April 2021 (UNHCR, n.d. [10 Jun. 2021]). By the end of 2020, the top five origin countries of refugees in the United States were: China (77,814), El Salvador (27,249), Guatemala (21,898), the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (17,338) and Honduras (15,882) (UNHCR, n.d. [10 Jun. 2021]). The top five origin countries of asylum seekers were: Guatemala (129,751), El Salvador (120,103), the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (119,567), Mexico (97,955) and Honduras (93,140) (Ibid).
In Canada, the top origin countries of refugees as of the end of 2020 were: Nigeria (7,604), Haiti (6,687), China (6,289), Turkey (6,167) and Pakistan (5,454), while the main countries of origin of asylum seekers were: Nigeria (11,088), India (10,475), Mexico (7,523), Haiti (5,493) and Colombia (4,828) (Ibid).
Northern America has experienced very low levels of emigration – only 4.33 million nationals of Northern American countries were living outside of their country of origin in 2020 – and among these 4.33 million, the majority (3.24 million, or 75%) were living outside the region, mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean and Europe (Ibid).
Since IDMC began measuring and publishing global data on displacement in 2008, and until the end of 2020, a total of 10.33 million new internal displacements caused by disasters have been recorded in Northern America, including 1.74 million recorded in 2020 (IDMC, 2021). Of these 10.33 million, 9.93 million (96%) were registered in the United States (Ibid).
There are two main data sources on migration in the region: statistical sources, such as censuses and surveys, and administrative sources, which correspond mainly to administrative procedures regarding the entry and stay of foreigners (such as border crossing data, issuance of residence permits and visas and more). Non-governmental institutions are also present in the region that collect and publish data and research on migration dynamics.
Statistical sources: Censuses and surveys
The population censuses in both countries collect a depth of indicators related to migrant populations and their demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. The United States Census Bureau administers the United States population and housing census every ten years while Statistics Canada conducts its census every five years.
National thematic surveys can also provide crucial data and information on migrants. For example, the American Community Survey measures a wide variety of indicators related to migration and is the largest survey conducted by the Census Bureau in the United States each year apart from the census. Other examples include the Bureau of Labor Statistics (under the United States Department of Labor), which collects and publishes statistics on foreign-born workers. Likewise, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducts nationwide surveys that include indicators on foreign-born residents.
There are also examples of national thematic surveys which are specifically designed to collect information on immigrant populations. One example is the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants in Canada (LSIC) developed by Statistics Canada and IRCC, which was designed to provide information on how new immigrants adjust to life in Canada and to understand factors that can help or hinder this adjustment (Statistics Canada, 2015).
Administrative data sources
There are a variety of departments and agencies in the United States that collect administrative data on migration. Some of the principal entities include: the Department of Homeland Security – under which falls the Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Citizenship and Immigration Service (CIS) – the Department of Labor, and its Office of Foreign Labor Certification – as well as the Department of State – under which falls the Bureau of Consular Affairs and the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migrants (PRM). These departments, agencies and bureaus, amongst others, provide up-to-date information on migration dynamics in the United States, including entries and exists, visa issuances, temporary and permanent residents, naturalizations, refugee and asylee data, labor market and other socioeconomic characteristics, and more.
In Canada, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) collects and publishes a wide variety of records ranging from entries data, residences, visas, movements, asylum applications and more in the Government of Canada’s Open Data Portal. In addition to the IRCC, the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) and the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) are also principal actors in migration management in the country and also collect and publish administrative data related to migration.
Sources by country
There are also other important non-governmental resources that either collect, analyze and / or present important information and data on migration dynamics in the region. In the United States, the Migration Policy Institute seeks to improve immigration and integration policies through authoritative research and analysis, opportunities for learning and dialogue, and the development of new ideas to address complex policy questions. The Institute offers a number of data resources, including:
In addition to MPI, other important actors in migration information and data include Pew Research Center, which produces a depth of information and data products related to immigration in the United States, as well as the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) and its data center.
There are also data sources that, although not specifically focused on the Northern America region but rather on Latin America and the Caribbean, contain migration data and information relevant to Canada and the United States:
Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) – CEPALSTAT: presents statistical information compiled, systematized and published by ECLAC for countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, including data and statistics related to migration.
Organization of American States (OAS), Continuous Reporting System on International Migration in the Americas (SICREMI): the system aims to contribute to the promotion and development of public policies that lead to better migration management in the Americas, through the facilitation of dialogue, cooperation, institutional strengthening and access to information.
IOM Regional Knowledge Hub on Migration (KM Hub): is a platform which allows easy access to relevant and useful information on human mobility in the region of Central America, North America and the Caribbean.
MPI Latin America & the Caribbean Migration Portal: a comprehensive, curated online resource for data, research and analysis on immigration policy in the region, including key immigration statistics, primary source documents, a selection of evidence-based reports and original research and analysis.
Strengths and limitations of the data sources
- National statistical systems in both countries are highly developed to the point where administrative and statistical data on migration are available in timely and reliable formats, permitting the development of a comprehensive knowledge of current migration dynamics in the region.
- Considerable disaggregation of migration data is available, including by sex, age, nationality, migration status and more, as well as multisectoral data that can be disaggregated by migration status.
- There is wide access to data through a variety of official portals and webpages managed by different governmental institutions.
- There are robust information systems that allow for analyses by different geographic areas and by different population subsets.
- The ability to compare information between the two countries is complicated due to different statistical and legal definitions employed regarding categories of migrants, permits, periods of stay and more.
- Although both countries collect data with advanced disaggregation (e.g., by age group, sex, country of origin, etc.), sometimes these data are not made available publicly, or are only available by special request.
Regional processes and actors
- Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM): the GCM is the first inter-governmentally negotiated agreement, prepared under the auspices of the United Nations, covering all dimensions of international migration in a holistic and comprehensive manner. It is a non-binding document oriented in 23 key objectives. The GCM recognizes the importance and value of data in its Goal 1 (collect and use accurate and disaggregated data to formulate evidence-based policies), Goal 3 (provide accurate and timely information during all stages of migration) and Goal 17 (eliminate all forms of discrimination and promote evidence-based public discourse to change perceptions of migration).
Below are additional regional processes and actors fundamental to migration management and governance and the generation of information and evidence on migration in the region:
- Organization of American States (OAS): the world’s oldest regional organization, the OAS was established in order to achieve among its member states – as stipulated in Article 1 of the Charter – “an order of peace and justice, to promote their solidarity, to strengthen their collaboration, and to defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity and their independence”. The Organization uses 4 pillars to achieve this essential purpose – democracy, human rights, security and development, coordinating through political dialogue, inclusion, cooperation and legal and monitoring instruments. Both the United States and Canada are permanent members of the OAS (consult this page to see information OAS’s work in migration).
- Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD): is an international organization that works to shape policies that foster prosperity, equality, opportunity and well-being for all. Together with governments, policy makers and citizens, the OECD works on establishing evidence-based international standards and finding solutions to a range of social, economic and environmental challenges, including migration. Both the United States and Canada are member states of the OECD (consult this page to see information on OECD’s work in migration).
- Regional Conference on Migration (RCM): the RCM is a voluntary, non-binding Regional Consultative Process (RCP) that allows for decision-making by consensus and provides a space for respectful, frank and honest discussion among Member Countries on regional and international migration, ensuring greater coordination, transparency and cooperation in the region. Both the United States and Canada are member countries of this RCP.
- Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD): a voluntary, informal, non-binding, government-led process in which all United Nations member and observer states can participate. Its objective is to address, in a transparent manner, the multifaceted aspects, opportunities and challenges related to international migration and its interrelationships with development; bring together the experiences of governments of all regions; strengthen dialogue, cooperation and partnership; and promote action-oriented and practical results at the national, regional and global levels. Both Canada and the United States participate in the GFMD.
- United Nations High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development (HLD): The objective of the Dialogue is to discuss the multidimensional aspects of international migration and development in order to determine the appropriate means of maximizing the development benefits and minimizing the negative impacts of migration. In addition, the HLD focuses on policy issues related to the achievement of international objectives related to migration, including those established in the SDGs.
International Organization for Migration (IOM)
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
Migration Policy Institute (MPI)
Pew Research Center
|all Publications related to immigration and migration in the United States|
1 For the purposes of this page, “Northern America” refers principally to two countries – Canada and the United States. Data referring to the region are based on United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs geographic classifications and thus include both Canada and the United States as well as Bermuda, Greenland and Saint Pierre and Miquelon.
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