Background on the Facts: The Right Number of Americans?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014
US Passport
Image credit: 
gashgeron, iStock

1 out of every 8 people in the United States is a first-generation immigrant. 45 percent of them are American citizens, which means that 1 in 20 of the current American population acquired citizenship after coming to the States. America remains a nation of immigrants. It relies on them to be sources of entrepreneurship and population growth – and, ultimately, proof to the rest of the world that America is still the land of opportunity.

One million immigrants are granted green cards per year, allowing them permanent residency to live and work here. 45 percent of them are new arrivals to America, mostly coming through family members but also as refugees and asylees. The other 55 percent have lived and worked in America on student or temporary work visas, and they clearly want to spend their lives here. Either way, both groups are making an investment in the American dream.

While immigrants used to largely come from Europe, the bulk of them now arrive from India, China, and Mexico. Even though America’s green card system is heavily weighted toward family-sponsored visas, those who migrate to the United States have higher workforce participation rates than native Americans. They also use government benefits at a lower rate, partially because they are not eligible for many programs for the first five years of their permanent residency, and partially because they support themselves through work.

America is behind the curve in one aspect of issuing immigrant visas – it allocates more of its slots for family-based visas than any other Western, developed nation. Immigration reform advocates on both sides of the aisle believe it is time to rebalance greencards that favor entry through employment instead of distant family members.

There is no doubt that if quotas for green cards were higher, there would be several million more immigrants each year. There are over 4.4 million people waiting in line to obtain green cards – or rather, in three lines, based on family- and employment-based visas, and the diversity visa lottery. Those entering through family preferences wait the longest.

The long lines to obtain green cards are partially because of the cap on visas, but also because of the per country limit on green cards. No more than 7 percent of the family and employment green cards can be issued to one country each year. That limit drives the long wait times for Indian and Chinese immigrants who are eligible for green cards through their jobs and the Chinese, Mexican, and Filipino family members who are waiting ten to twenty years for permanent residency.

Basic Facts

  • 42 percent of legal migrants today are from Asia, 14 percent from Mexico, and 8 percent from Europe.
  • Workers dominate legal migration, with a small fraction of migrants younger than 14 or older than 54.
  • Half of the new migrants already lived in the US on a temporary basis when they received their green cards.
  • The US is #1 in terms of welcoming the most immigrants, but only in raw numbers (Germany is #2). The US is ranked #22 when annual flow is measured as a percentage of the population, and #12 for the total stock of immigrants relative to the population.
  • Ireland, Spain, Iceland, and Switzerland take in three times or more immigrants proportionally than the US.
  • Two-thirds of green cards (lawful permanent resident status) are granted based on family ties, vastly higher than any other country. The second highest group is refugees, while just over ten percent are employment-based.