American Demographics


At its heart, the U.S. is a country of immigrants. According to the last U.S. Census, just 3.08 million — or 1% — of the roughly 330 million Americans can claim Native American ancestry. No, almost all of our ancestors came from somewhere else — America truly is a great “melting pot.”

To let us better understand today’s immigration policy, it might be instructive to review how our nation has viewed immigration over the years. For much of our nation’s history, we have encouraged free and open immigration. It wasn’t until the General Immigration Act of 1882 that the United States first blocked or excluded the entry of “idiots, lunatics, convicts and persons likely to become a public charge.” Between 1900 and 1920, we admitted approximately 14.5 million immigrants to help fill the jobs created during the Industrial Revolution. It was during this wave of mass immigration that additional provisions were added, including the requirement that immigrants be able to read and write in their native languages and pass medical examinations. Fast-forward to the post-World War II years and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 — and its amendments in 1965 — which removed racial barriers and promoted reuniting immigrant families, now known as “chain migration.”

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we began to focus on border security and the removal of criminal immigrants but, importantly, the United States remained committed to welcoming lawful immigrants.

Officially, U.S. immigration policy limits annual permanent immigrants to 675,000 individuals from all around the world. Almost to my amazement, our primary immigration laws are still based on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. Certainly, the world has changed since then, so it is left to the executive branch for random implementation. The current administration has pursued a policy of securing the southern border, removing of unlawful entrants, ending chain migration and pursuing a “meritbased entry system.”

According to the Foreign Affairs Institute, “America has the world’s largest skilled work force and the world’s most highly educated population.” It is no wonder why people continue to want to come here in pursuit of “the American Dream.”

So how is our national immigration policy impacting us in the Lowcountry? The study of economics requires that we consider long-term demographic trends to identify the potential for growth or decline in markets. Simply put, population trends are fundamental to understanding what is likely to happen as far as local economies are concerned. Since Hilton Head Island’s earliest development days, our market has been dependent upon importing workers to the island. As our local population has grown and more visitors arrive, the demand for workers — especially service workers — has grown. Today, Hilton Head has a full-time population of approximately 39,651 people with another 2.61 million visitors annually.

And it’s not just Hilton Head that’s seeing explosive growth. Bluffton is one of the fastest-growing communities in South Carolina, adding more than 2,000 new residents each year. Today, Bluffton has more than 21,000 residents, a whopping 60% increase since 2010. In fact, the latest population estimates show that Beaufort County now has 186,844 residents and is growing at the rate of 1.8% per year.

As we grow locally, as well as nationally, we are dependent upon a well-conceived and implemented federal immigration policy. Actually, it is forecasted that the United States will require approximately 1 million immigrants annually to fill jobs that will otherwise go unfilled. Boiling this down to what we need to do in southern Beaufort County if we are to be able to meet our worker needs is very complex and we will need a wellcoordinated approach. We will need a much more aggressive approach to public transportation, we will need to develop a broad approach to workforce housing, we will need to improve our roads and bridges to allow traffic to move more efficiently. But none of this will matter if we don’t provide a mechanism to attract “New Americans.”

Elihu Spencer is a local amateur economist with a long business history in global finance. His life work has been centered on understanding credit cycles and their impact on local economies. The information contained in this article has been obtained from sources considered reliable but the accuracy cannot be guaranteed.