Spotlight on the United States

The United States is often described as “a nation of immigrants,” a phrase coined by John F. Kennedy in an essay written in 1958 when he was the junior senator from Massachusetts.8 As the future president wrote, “This was the secret of America: a nation of people with the fresh memory of old traditions who dared to explore new frontiers, people eager to build lives for themselves in a spacious society that did not restrict their freedom of choice and action.”9

Poverty, famine, war and other hardships drove millions of immigrants to the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries, primarily from Europe. Since the 1960s, when Kennedy’s essay was posthumously published as a book, America’s immigrant population has continued to grow and diversify. In the past 50 years, millions of immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean have made their way to the U.S., along with significant numbers from East Asia (including China, Korea and Vietnam), India and sub-Saharan Africa. Today, the United States is home to immigrants from virtually every country in the world.10

As of 2010, there were nearly 43 million foreign-born residents in the U.S. – more than three times as many as in Russia (12 million), the second-leading destination.11 One of every five international migrants alive today resides in the United States.

Mexico has been by far the largest country of origin for U.S. immigrants. In fact, the U.S. has received about as many immigrants from Mexico alone (more than 12 million, including both legal immigrants and unauthorized ones) as any other nation has received from all sources combined.12 Among the other leading countries of origin for U.S. immigrants have been the Philippines (1.8 million), India (1.7 million), China (1.4 million) and Germany (1.2 million). (For more details on migration to and from the United States, see the interactive graphics.)


While the United States has taken in more immigrants than any other country, the share of the U.S. population that is foreign-born (13%) is about average for Western industrial democracies. Indeed, among the 159 countries with populations of 1 million or more, the United States ranks 26th in the percentage of residents who were born abroad. By comparison, first-generation (foreign-born) immigrants make up more than 20% of the population in Australia (ranks 12th) and Canada (ranks 13th), two other countries that historically have attracted a large number of immigrants.13

Immigrant Religious Distribution in the United States

With its huge population of immigrants, the United States has been the leading destination for many, though not all, religious groups. The U.S. is the world’s No. 1 destination for Christian migrants, who make up an estimated 32 million (74%) of the 43 million foreign-born people living in the United States. The U.S. is also the top destination for Buddhist migrants (including many from Vietnam) and for people with no particular religion (including many from China). The U.S. is the world’s second-leading destination for Hindu migrants, after India, and for Jewish migrants, after Israel. Among Muslim migrants, however, the U.S. ranks just seventh as a destination – behind Saudi Arabia, Russia, Germany, France, Jordan and Pakistan. About 5% of U.S. immigrants are Muslims, a much lower share than in Europe, where Muslims represent about 25% or more of the immigrants living in many countries, including France, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany. (See Spotlight on Europe.)

Spotlight on Europe

During the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, European countries were a source of many more migrants than they received. After World War II, however, the pattern began to change. As Europe, and particularly Western Europe, began a period of great economic growth, fewer people on the continent felt the need to emigrate. The dismantling of the colonial system in Africa and Asia also reversed the flow of migrants, who began to move in sizable numbers from former colonies to Europe. By the 1960s, booming economies in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and other European countries were attracting job seekers from North Africa, Asia and elsewhere. More recently, countries in Southern Europe, such as Spain and Italy, also have become important destinations, experiencing rapid immigration in the past decade or so.14

In a number of ways, the scale of immigration in the European Union now is remarkably similar to the scale of immigration in the United States:

  • The U.S. has an estimated 43 million immigrants; the E.U.’s 27 member states collectively have 47 million.
  • About 13% of the U.S. population was born abroad; many Western European countries (such as Spain and Germany) have a similar percentage of foreign-born residents.
  • The estimated number of Muslim immigrants living in the E.U. (nearly 13 million) is about the same as the estimated number of Mexican immigrants residing in the U.S. (more than 12 million).

Movement within Europe also has become more like movement within the United States. Since 1985, with the signing of the Schengen Agreement on freedom of movement in Europe, a growing number of people in the E.U. and a few other countries have been able to travel to – and reside permanently in – other member states without an immigrant visa.15

This report defines an international migrant as a person residing outside the country in which he or she was born. So when someone from one European country, such as France, moves to another European country, such as Italy, is that person an international migrant? For the purposes of this report, the answer is yes.


Using this “foreign-born rule” – that is, counting everyone who has moved from one European country to another as an immigrant – the religious composition of the E.U.’s immigrant population is heavily Christian (56%), albeit with a substantial Muslim minority (27%).16

But what if internal migration within the European Union was excluded and only people born outside the 27 E.U. countries were counted as immigrants? In that case, the share of Christian immigrants (42%) and the share of Muslim immigrants (39%) in the E.U. are much closer, though Christians still outnumber Muslim immigrants by nearly 1 million.17 (Other religious groups besides Muslims and Christians remain at about the same percentage whether or not internal migration within the E.U. is excluded. About one-in-ten migrants have no religion in particular, and the remainder belong to a variety of smaller religious groups.)

When internal migration is excluded, the main origins of Christian immigrants to the E.U. include Russia (1.3 million), Ukraine (1 million) Albania (640,000), Serbia (580,000), Ecuador (580,000), Brazil (460,000), Colombia (440,000), the United States (430,000) and several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Top origins for Muslim immigrants are Turkey, Morocco, Algeria and Pakistan. Hindu immigrants are mostly from India, and the religiously unaffiliated have mostly come from Russia and China. The vast majority of Buddhist immigrants in Europe have come from Asian countries, including Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Thailand.

Spotlight on the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries

The Arab countries of the Persian Gulf have been transformed by the discovery of huge oil reserves. In just a few decades, the region’s economies have expanded enormously – and so, too, have their populations, fueled in part by the arrival of millions of foreign-born workers.18

To maintain their economic growth and high standards of living, the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) have leaned on a largely immigrant labor force. All together, the GCC countries have a total of more than 15 million foreign-born residents drawn heavily from such countries as India, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Moreover, these foreign-born workers are very numerous in comparison with the native-born population in all the GCC countries. In Qatar, for instance, more than 80% of the total population is estimated to be foreign born. Even in Saudi Arabia, which has the lowest percentage of foreign-born residents in the GCC, immigrants make up more than a quarter of the population (28%), about twice the level in the United States (13%).19

Although GCC countries consider most immigrants to be temporary workers on short-term visas, many have repeatedly renewed their visas and work contracts, making their presence less temporary than it may seem. At the same time, many of these workers have disincentives to stay permanently, including little hope of gaining citizenship either for themselves or for their children, as well as social barriers to integration and significant restrictions on their ability to practice religions other than Islam.20

Most GCC countries either do not count foreign-born residents in their censuses or do not publicly release detailed data about their immigrant populations. A few countries, particularly Bahrain and Qatar, do periodically describe the number of non-nationals residing within their borders and provide some information on migrants’ regional origins (Europe, Asia, Americas, etc.). As a result, scholars have been able to use a combination of migrant population data (stocks) and migrant visa records (flows) from the region to generate some estimates. Still, detailed figures on migration to the GCC are nonexistent, and most estimates are very rough.


The religious distribution of immigrants in the region is also challenging to determine. It appears from the limited statistics available that Muslims from religiously diverse countries (such as India, which has a Hindu majority but a sizable Muslim minority) are more likely than non-Muslims to move to the Arabian Peninsula. Therefore, the religious affiliation estimates in this report for GCC countries are guided by the religious distribution of immigrants to Egypt, also a Muslim-majority country, but one for which much more reliable data on immigrants is available. (For an explanation of this use of “destination proxies,” see Appendix B: Methodology).

Using this data, it appears that Muslims are the majority (about seven-in-ten) of immigrants in Gulf Cooperation Council countries, coming primarily from India, Pakistan, Egypt, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Among non-Muslim immigrants, most are either Christian or Hindu. Christian immigrants to the GCC come mainly from India, the Philippines, North America and Europe. Hindu immigrants are primarily from India. A much smaller share of immigrants are Buddhist, Jewish, follow other religions or are religiously unaffiliated.

If the pace of immigration to the region continues, some GCC states, particularly those with small populations, may see dramatic changes in the religious composition of their societies, though all six GCC countries are expected to retain Muslim majorities for the foreseeable future. (For more details, see the Pew Forum’s report, The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Projections for 2010-2030.)


8 See Jason DeParle, “Favoring Immigration if Not the Immigrant,” The New York Times, May 8, 2011. (return to text)

9 John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants, Anti-Defamation League, 1958. Kennedy was working on a revision of the publication when he was assassinated in 1963. It was published posthumously in 1964 by HarperCollins. A 50th anniversary edition was published in January 2008. (return to text)

10 For more information on the history of U.S. immigration, see Aristide R. Zolberg, A Nation by Design, Russell Sage Foundation, 2006. (return to text)

11 As previously noted, the U.N. Population Division estimate of 42.8 million immigrants in the U.S. includes about 3 million people born in U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico and Guam, as well as people born overseas to American citizens. (return to text)

12 The estimate for Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. is taken from a recent Pew Hispanic Center report based on the March 2010 Current Population Survey (PDF) (see page 8). The CPS’ estimate of nearly 12.4 million Mexican immigrants has been adjusted by the Pew Hispanic Center to take into a account the likely undercounting of unauthorized immigrants. (return to text)

13 Other countries that have a higher percentage of immigrants than the U.S. include some Gulf Cooperation Council countries (such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait); countries with a high number of refugees (such as Jordan and Lebanon); and some European countries (such as Switzerland and Spain). See the United Nations 2009 International Migration figures. (return to text)

14 For more information on European immigration, see Anna Triandafyllidou and Ruby Gropas, editors. European Immigration: A Sourcebook, Ashgate Publishing, 2007. (return to text)

15 The borders of the Schengen Area and the E.U. overlap but are not identical. Signatories to the Schengen Agreement include some non-E.U. countries, such as Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. At the same time, some E.U. countries either have not fully come on board with the agreement (the United Kingdom, Ireland) or have not yet fully become part of it (Bulgaria, Cyprus, Romania). (return to text)

16 Those who have moved from one E.U. country to another are overwhelmingly Christian. Of the nearly 16 million people who have migrated within the E.U., more than 13 million (more than 80%) are Christian. The second-largest group is the religiously unaffiliated (more than 2 million). (return to text)

17 The borders of Europe can be defined in numerous other ways as well. Each definition affects both the number and the religious breakdown of the immigrant population. For example, if one were to look just at Western Europe – sometimes defined as the original 15 E.U. countries plus Norway and Switzerland – it has an estimated 46 million immigrants, including 56% Christians and 28% Muslims. If, further, one were to take this definition of Western Europe and exclude internal migration, then it would have an estimated 36 million immigrants, including 49% Christians and 35% Muslims. (return to text)

18 For more information on labor migration in the Persian Gulf, see Douglas S. Massey et al., Worlds in Motion, Oxford University Press, 1998. (return to text)

19 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, International Migration, 2009 Wallchart, United Nations publication, Sales No. E.09.XIII.8, 2009. (return to text)

20 For more information on religious restrictions in GCC and other countries, see the Pew Forum’s August 2011 report Rising Restrictions on Religion(return to text)