Chinese Immigrants in the United States

People from China make up one of the largest immigrant groups in the United States, but the size and makeup of this population was dramatically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic’s upending of global migration.

While the number of Chinese immigrants in the United States peaked at almost 2.5 million in 2019, it fell to under 2.4 million in 2021, breaking a long period of growth. This decline was due in part to restrictions placed by the Trump administration on migration from China in the early months of the pandemic, with tighter visa rules for international students and foreign workers throughout 2020, and the Chinese government’s “zero-COVID” policies that were in place until late 2022, chilling travel from China. Data show that the numbers of Chinese arrivals have risen in recent months, but it may take some time for pandemic-related population losses to reverse.

Chinese immigration to the United States has a long and at times fraught history. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress in response to anti-Chinese sentiment and organized labor lobbying and brought the arrival of Chinese workers to a near-total halt. Emigration controls imposed by the Chinese government after World War II and the Chinese Communist Revolution limited mobility as well.

In contrast, the 1965 removal of barriers for non-European immigrants to the United States was a game changer for increasing immigration, as were relaxed emigration controls by China in 1978 and improved U.S.-China relations. The number of Chinese immigrants residing in the United States nearly doubled from 1980 to 1990, and again by 2000 (see Figure 1). Since then, the population has continued growing but at a slower pace.

Despite the recent declines, Chinese immigrants still represent the third largest origin group among U.S. immigrants (after those from Mexico and India), accounting for 5 percent of the 45.3 million immigrants in the United States as of 2021.