May 17, 2013

The Religious Affiliation of U.S. Immigrants: Majority Christian, Rising Share of Other Faiths

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Overview

Over the past 20 years, the United States has granted permanent residency status to an average of about 1 million immigrants each year. These new “green card” recipients qualify for residency in a wide variety of ways – as family members of current U.S. residents, recipients of employment visas, refugees and asylum seekers, or winners of a visa lottery – and they include people from nearly every country in the world. But their geographic origins gradually have been shifting. U.S. government statistics show that a smaller percentage come from Europe and the Americas than did so 20 years ago, and a growing share now come from Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East-North Africa region.

With this geographic shift, it is likely that the religious makeup of legal immigrants also has been changing. The U.S. government, however, does not keep track of the religion of new permanent residents. As a result, the figures on religious affiliation in this report are estimates produced by combining government statistics on the birthplaces of new green card recipients over the period between 1992 and 2012 with the best available U.S. survey data on the religious self-identification of new immigrants from each major country of origin.

While Christians continue to make up a majority of legal immigrants to the U.S., the estimated share of new legal permanent residents who are Christian declined from 68% in 1992 to 61% in 2012. Over the same period, the estimated share of green card recipients who belong to religious minorities rose from approximately one-in-five (19%) to one-in-four (25%). This includes growing shares of Muslims (5% in 1992, 10% in 2012) and Hindus (3% in 1992, 7% in 2012). The share of Buddhists, however, is slightly smaller (7% in 1992, 6% in 2012), while the portion of legal immigrants who are religiously unaffiliated (atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular) has remained relatively stable, at about 14% per year.1

Unauthorized immigrants, by contrast, come primarily from Latin America and the Caribbean, and the overwhelming majority of them – an estimated 83% – are Christian. That share is slightly higher than the percentage of Christians in the U.S. population as a whole (estimated at just under 80% of U.S. residents of all ages, as of 2010).2

These are among the key findings of a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life examining recent trends in the geographic origins and religious affiliation of immigrants to the United States. (For information on religion among migrants not just in the U.S. but globally, see the Pew Research Center’s 2012 report “Faith on the Move: The Religious Affiliation of International Migrants.”)

About the Estimates

The U.S. government does not collect data on the religious affiliation of immigrants. However, estimates can be made using information gathered by the Department of Homeland Security on the countries of origin of new green card recipients. To estimate the religious breakdown of immigrants from each country, the Pew Research Center relied primarily on the New Immigrant Survey, a nationwide survey conducted in 2003 by scholars at the RAND Corporation, Princeton University, New York University and Yale University that asked more than 8,500 recent legal immigrants about their religion, among other questions.3

The use of survey data along with country-of-origin data improves the reliability of the estimates because, in some cases, the religious makeup of migrants differs from the religious composition of the overall population in their country of birth. This study does not automatically assume, for example, that if the population of Country A is 75% Muslim, then 75% of migrants from Country A to the United States must be Muslim. On the contrary, the study uses data from the New Immigrant Survey on the religious breakdown of new U.S. green card recipients to estimate the religious affiliation of the vast majority (95%) of legal immigrants.

On the other hand, the use of a single survey conducted at one point in time (albeit roughly in the middle of the 20-year period under examination) may introduce some time-related bias. In the absence of survey data on new immigrants from other years, this study assumes that throughout the period from 1992 to 2012, the religious breakdown of legal immigrants to the U.S. from each country of origin was the same as in 2003, at the time of the survey. For example, if the New Immigrant Survey found that 60% of new green card recipients from Country B were Christian and 40% were Buddhist, then those percentages were applied to the number of new green card recipients from Country B in every year from 1992 to 2012. This means that all of the estimated change in the religious makeup of legal immigrants reported in this study is a result of shifts in their geographic origins. This study is unable to capture any changes that may have occurred in the religious mix of migrants from a particular country.

Other evidence attests to some of the broad patterns identified by the study, however. For example, Pew Research Center surveys of U.S. Muslims in 2007 and 2011 suggest that the number of Muslims living in the United States rose in that four-year period by about 300,000 adults and 100,000 children, to a total of about 2.75 million Muslims of all ages – a rate of increase that is in line with the estimates in this report and would be difficult to explain without rising immigration. Similarly, a Pew Research Center survey of Asian Americans in 2012, combined with U.S. Census data, suggests that the number of Hindus in the United States has been increasing in large part due to rising immigration over the past two decades.

To reflect some of the uncertainty inherent in the estimates, all population numbers in this report are rounded to the nearest 10,000 and percentages are rounded to whole numbers.

For more explanation of how the estimates were calculated, see the methodology.

Geographic Origins

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The geographic origins of new permanent residents have shifted markedly during the past two decades, according to U.S. government data. In 1992, a total of 41% of new permanent residents came from the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East-North Africa region or sub-Saharan Africa. By 2012, more than half (53%) of new green card holders were from those regions.

Conversely, the annual percentage of legal immigrants coming from Europe and the Americas has decreased. In 1992, well over half (59%) of all new legal immigrants came from Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean or North America. By 2012, fewer than half (47%) came from those regions.

Religious Affiliation

The number of immigrants who are granted legal permanent residency fluctuates from year to year, but generally has been increasing since 1945.4 It rose from about 250,000 annually in the 1950s to an average of about 1 million per year over the last two decades. In 1992, for example, there were approximately 970,000 new green card recipients. Of these, an estimated 650,000 were Christians (68%), 180,000 belonged to other religious groups (19%) and 130,000 were religiously unaffiliated (14%).5

In 2012, by comparison, approximately 1,030,000 immigrants received permanent residency status, including an estimated 620,000 Christians (61%), 260,000 people of other faiths (25%) and 140,000 religiously unaffiliated immigrants (14%).

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Christians remain by far the largest religious group among legal U.S. immigrants, though their estimated share has decreased from 68% in 1992 to 61% in 2012. Over the past two decades, the U.S. has admitted an estimated 12.7 million Christian immigrants.

The second-largest religious category among legal immigrants is the unaffiliated, which includes atheists, agnostics and people who do not identify with any particular religion. In recent years, the share of immigrants who have no religious affiliation has held fairly stable, at about 14%. Since 1992, the U.S. has admitted an estimated 2.8 million religiously unaffiliated immigrants.

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Over the same period, the estimated share of legal Muslim immigrants entering the U.S. each year has roughly doubled, from about 5% of legal immigrants in 1992 to about 10% in 2012. Since 1992, the U.S. has admitted an estimated total of about 1.7 million Muslim immigrants.

Hindu immigrants also have increased in number over the past 20 years, rising from about 3% of new permanent residents in 1992 to 7% in 2012. In that span, the U.S. has admitted nearly a million Hindu immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center’s estimate.

By contrast, the annual share of Buddhist immigrants has dipped somewhat, going from an estimated 7% of legal immigrants in 1992 (near the end of a wave of refugees from Southeast Asia that began during the Vietnam War) to about 4% annually a decade ago and about 6% in 2012. Over the past two decades, the U.S. has admitted an estimated total of about 1 million Buddhist immigrants – approximately the same as the number of Hindus.

The estimated share of immigrants of all other religious groups – including Jews, Sikhs and adherents of Chinese folk religions – has remained relatively stable over the past 20 years, at roughly 3% of new permanent residents. Since 1992, the U.S. has admitted an estimated 600,000 immigrants who belong to these groups.

This report focuses mainly on legal immigrants, or legal permanent residents, admitted to the United States between 1992 and 2012. About half of LPRs are granted permanent residency status while already living in the U.S., typically on temporary visas. The other half receive permission for permanent residency before entering the U.S. from a foreign country.

Under immigration laws originally enacted in 1965 and subsequently amended several times, permanent visas are allocated to four main groups of immigrants: family members of U.S. citizens and residents (in recent years, about 65% of LPRs), people in the U.S. on temporary employment visas (about 15% of LPRs), refugees and asylum seekers (about 15% of LPRs) and winners of diversity lotteries from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. (about 5% of LPRs).

Although international students and some workers also can reside legally in the U.S., they are generally considered temporary migrants and are not included in the figures for legal immigrants in this report.

Comparisons With Unauthorized Immigrants

The United States has a total of about 43 million foreign-born residents. Roughly three-quarters of them are legal immigrants, and a quarter are in the country without legal permission. The religious makeup of the legal permanent residents is quite different from that of the unauthorized immigrants.6

Of the approximately 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. in 2011, an estimated 9.2 million (83%) are Christians, mostly from Latin America. Many of the remaining 17% are religiously unaffiliated, and fewer than one-in-ten unauthorized immigrants are estimated to belong to non-Christian religious groups.7 Due to insufficient data on religious affiliation within this hard-to-measure population, this report is unable to estimate the number of unauthorized immigrants who belong to specific non-Christian groups.

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The remainder of this report provides more detail on the estimated size and geographic origins of the major religious groups among legal permanent residents in the U.S.

Christian Immigrants

Over the past two decades, an estimated average of about 600,000 Christian immigrants became permanent U.S. residents each year. Annual levels of legal Christian immigration appear to have been lower in the late 1990s (around 430,000 per year), while the recent peak (more than 800,000) was in 2006. The number of legal Christian immigrants per year has declined somewhat since 2006, and is estimated at 620,000 for 2012.

From 1992 to 2012, an estimated 12.7 million Christians received green cards. By comparison, the total Christian population in the U.S. was about 247 million in 2010.

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Over the past 20 years, roughly six-in-ten legal Christian immigrants have come from Latin America and the Caribbean (an average of about 370,000 each year). At the same time, more Christian immigrants have been coming from sub-Saharan Africa. In 2012, an estimated 11% of Christian immigrants came from sub-Saharan Africa, compared with just 3% in 1992. Meanwhile, the percentage of Christian immigrants from Europe has been declining. In 2012, about 9% of new Christian immigrants were from Europe, down from an estimated 15% in 1992.

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Religiously Unaffiliated Immigrants

The number of religiously unaffiliated immigrants (which includes atheists, agnostics and people who do not identify with any particular religion) has been fairly stable over the past two decades. In 1992, an estimated 130,000 new permanent residents had no religious affiliation. The estimate for 2012 is 140,000.

Since 1992, the U.S. has admitted nearly 2.8 million religiously unaffiliated legal permanent residents. By comparison, the U.S. population in 2010 included more than 40 million people with no religious affiliation.8

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The geographic origins of unaffiliated immigrants also have not changed much during the past 20 years. More than half come from countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including China and Vietnam. About a quarter come from nations in the Americas, such as Mexico and Canada. Another significant share of unaffiliated immigrants were born in Europe, although that percentage has decreased since 1992.

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Muslim Immigrants

The estimated number of new Muslim immigrants varies from year to year but generally has been on the rise, going from roughly 50,000 in 1992 to 100,000 in 2012. Since 2008, the estimated number of Muslims becoming U.S. permanent residents has remained at or above the 100,000 level each year.

Between 1992 and 2012, a total of about 1.7 million Muslims entered the U.S. as legal permanent residents. That constitutes a large portion of the overall U.S. Muslim population (estimated at 2.75 million as of 2011).

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In the early 1990s, the great majority of Muslim green card recipients came from Asia and the Pacific or the Middle East-North Africa region. The most common countries of origin among Muslim immigrants in 1992 included Pakistan, Iran and Bangladesh. Those countries, as well as Iraq, also were among the most likely birthplaces of Muslim immigrants to the U.S. in 2012.

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In recent years, a higher percentage of Muslim immigrants have been coming from sub-Saharan Africa. An estimated 16% of Muslim immigrants to the U.S. in 2012 were born in countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia. In 1992, only about 5% of new Muslim immigrants came from sub-Saharan Africa.

Hindu Immigrants

The number of Hindus becoming permanent residents in the U.S. has increased in recent years. An average of about 30,000 Hindus were admitted each year in the 1990s; by contrast, the U.S. admitted an estimated 70,000 Hindu immigrants in 2012.

During the past 20 years, nearly 1 million Hindu immigrants have entered the U.S. as permanent residents, substantially increasing the total American Hindu population, estimated at about 1.8 million as of 2010.

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The great majority of Hindu immigrants come from India and neighboring countries with significant Hindu populations, such as Nepal and Bhutan. The share coming from the Caribbean (or “West Indies”) has decreased significantly, dropping from an estimated 16% of all Hindu immigrants to the U.S. in 1992 to 5% in 2012.

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Buddhist Immigrants

The number of Buddhists receiving permanent residency in the U.S. decreased sharply during the 1990s, following a wave of refugees that began during the Vietnam War. In recent years, the estimated number of Buddhist immigrants has rebounded somewhat, but it still was not as high in 2012 (60,000) as in 1992 (70,000).

Between 1992 and 2012, slightly more than 1 million Buddhists received green cards. Overall, there were an estimated 3.6 million Buddhists in the U.S. as of 2010.

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Nearly all Buddhist immigrants come from Asia. In 1992, the most common countries of origin for Buddhist immigrants to the U.S. included Vietnam, Laos, Taiwan and China. In 2012, Myanmar (formerly Burma) also was a major source of Buddhist immigrants.

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Immigrants of Other Religions

An estimated average of 30,000 immigrants belonging to other religions have become legal permanent residents of the U.S. each year since 1992. They include Sikhs and Jains from India, followers of folk religions from China and Hong Kong, followers of African traditional religions from sub-Saharan Africa and Jews from the former Soviet Union, among others.

From 1992 to 2012, an estimated 600,000 legal immigrants belonging to other religions entered the U.S. By comparison, the total population in the U.S. belonging to other faiths was about 8.2 million in 2010.

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Nearly half of legal immigrants belonging to other religions are from the Asia-Pacific region. Europe and the Middle East-North Africa region are the other two major areas of origin for these immigrants, many of whom are Jews from Eastern Europe and Israel.

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Methodology

Numerous data sources were used in compiling the estimates included in this report. Data were collected first on the geographic origins of immigrants. Later, religious distributions were applied to the flows of immigrants from each origin country.

Origin data

Tables showing the countries of birth of new legal permanent residents were downloaded from the Department of Homeland Security’s website (http://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics).

In these tables, data points for a few countries (cells) either were missing or could not be broken down by religious affiliation, typically because they are either newly recognized countries (such as South Sudan and Kosovo) or countries that have dissolved and been superseded by other entities (such as the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia). Undisclosed cells for origin countries with small populations were assumed to be zero.

Data on the origins of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. in 2011 (or total stock) were prepared by Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center. Methods used to calculate these estimates can be found at http://www.pewhispanic.org/2011/02/01/appendix-b-methodology/.

Religion data

Religion information for U.S. immigrants was drawn primarily from the New Immigrant Survey (NIS).9 The NIS interviewed new legal immigrants who entered the U.S. or adjusted their status to permanent residency in 2003. The survey had a 69% response rate and included more than 8,500 respondents. Interviews were conducted in each immigrant’s preferred language; about a quarter were in Spanish. Interviewers asked each respondent about his or her religious affiliation.

Almost all of the religion estimates (about 95% of the total immigrant population) for both legal and unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. included in this report rely on the New Immigrant Survey for religious breakdowns by country of birth. However, the religious breakdowns for a few countries with small numbers of immigrants in the U.S. (about 5% of the total immigrant population) were drawn from the 2012 Pew Research Center report “The Global Religious Landscape.” For this latter group, the religious breakdown of immigrants in the U.S. is assumed to be the same as the general population in their country of origin in 2010.10

Immigrant religion estimates

Religious distributions were applied to the origins of immigrants (both legal and unauthorized) regardless of which year they came to the U.S. Consequently, it is assumed that the religious distributions for the origins of immigrants were the same for all years between 1992 and 2012. The religious breakdown of immigrants from a particular country may fluctuate over a 20-year period, but it is expected that these shifts would be small and gradual and would not result in major changes to overall estimates. To allow for slight changes over time, the population counts in this report are rounded to the nearest 10,000, while percentages are rounded to whole numbers. All numbers for religious groups in this report are estimates.

Robustness of estimates

As a check on the robustness of the estimates in this study, Pew Research Center demographers examined various other survey data as well as estimates of the growth of minority religious groups in the United States, particularly Muslims and Hindus. These additional sources of information also indicate that Muslims and Hindus have made up a rising share of legal immigrants, consistent with the estimates presented here.

For example, the Pew Research Center’s 2011 survey of U.S. Muslim adults found that 63% were born abroad. The largest single country of origin was Pakistan (9%), followed by a number of other countries, including Iran, Bangladesh, Yemen, Jordan and Iraq. U.S. government statistics show that the number of legal immigrants from these countries has either held steady or grown substantially in recent years. For example, nearly 15,000 new immigrants came from Pakistan in 2012, compared with about 10,000 in 1992. More than 20,000 Iraqis received permanent residency status in the U.S. in 2012, compared with about 4,000 in 1992. And nearly 15,000 new green card recipients in 2012 were from Bangladesh, compared with fewer than 4,000 in 1992.

Data from the Pew Research Center’s 2011 survey of Muslim Americans also show that a rising share of Muslims have arrived in more recent years. Among the foreign-born Muslim adults surveyed, 12% came before 1980, 16% came during the 1980s, 31% came during the 1990s, and 40% came since 2000.

Number of New Permanent Residents from Selected Countries, 1992 vs. 2012
Country 1992 2012
Bangladesh 3,740 14,705
Iran 13,233 12,916
Iraq 4,111 20,369
Jordan 4,036 4,099
Pakistan 10,214 14,740
Yemen 2,056 2,620
Total 37,390 69,449
Source: Office of Immigration Statistics, Department of Homeland Security

Among Hindus, the Pew Research Center’s 2012 survey of Asian Americans found that the overwhelming majority of Hindu adults in the U.S. were born abroad (96%), and that most come from India (87%). U.S. government statistics show rising rates of immigration from India over the past two decades. In 1992, about 40,000 people born in India became legal permanent residents. In 2012, the figure was nearly 70,000.

Data from the 2012 Asian American survey also indicate that a rising share of Hindus have arrived in more recent years. Among foreign-born Hindu adults surveyed, about 9% came before 1980, 18% came during the 1980s, 27% came during the 1990s, and 44% came since 2000.


Footnotes:

1 The change among religious minorities as a whole (up 6 percentage points) does not equal the sum of the changes among individual groups (Muslims up 5 points, Hindus up 4 points, Buddhists down 1 point, other groups stable) because of rounding to whole numbers. (return to text)

2 For more information on the share of Christians in the population of the United States and other countries, see the Pew Research Center’s 2011 study “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.” (return to text)

3 For more information on the New Immigrant Survey, see http://nis.princeton.edu/. The survey was designed and conducted by scholars at several academic institutions (not by the Pew Research Center) and was supported in part by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts. (return to text)

4 For a description of trends in legal immigration from 1900 to 2012, see http://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/ois_lpr_fr_2012_2.pdf. (return to text)

5 Percentages are calculated from unrounded numbers and may not add to 100 due to rounding. (return to text)

6 Data on the annual number of unauthorized immigrants entering the U.S. are very limited. Consequently, it is not possible to estimate how the religious composition of the unauthorized immigrant population may have changed in recent decades. The figures on unauthorized immigrants in this report are for the entire population of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. as of 2011 (stocks), not the number entering the country in any particular year (flows). (return to text)

7 For more information on estimates of the unauthorized immigrant population, see the Pew Research Center report “Unauthorized Immigrants: 11.1 Million in 2011.” (return to text)

8 For more information on the number of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated, see the Pew Research Center’s 2012 report “Nones on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation.” (return to text)

9 For more information on the New Immigrant Survey, see http://nis.princeton.edu/. (return to text)

10 For more information on the religious composition of countries around the world, see the Pew Research Center’s 2012 study “The Global Religious Landscape: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Major Religious Groups as of 2010.” (return to text)

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