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Legal Immigration to the United States

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Legal Immigration to the United States

Family reunification accounted for 65 percent of all lawful permanent immigration in 2008.

Source Spotlights are often updated as new data become available. Please click here to find the most recent version of this Spotlight.

This updated Spotlight takes a close look at the 2008 statistics on foreign nationals admitted for and adjusted to lawful permanent residence (LPR).

One of the most commonly used publications on U.S. immigration statistics is The Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, published by the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS).

The Yearbook presents inflow statistics on foreign nationals who, during a fiscal year:

  1. were granted lawful permanent residence (i.e., immigrants);
  2. applied for and/or were granted refugee/asylee status;
  3. were admitted on a temporary basis (i.e., nonimmigrants);
  4. acquired U.S. citizenship (i.e., naturalized).

The Yearbook also presents information about Homeland Security's immigration law enforcement activities during a fiscal year. This Spotlight uses data from the Yearbook.

Note: all yearly data is for the government's fiscal year (October 1 through September 30). All data are from OIS unless otherwise noted.

Click on the bullet points below for more information:

According to U.S. immigration law, immigrants are persons lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the United States.
Also known as "green-card holders," immigrants are persons lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS) also refers to immigrants as aliens who are granted lawful permanent residence (LPR), aliens admitted for lawful permanent residence, immigrants admitted, and admissions.

In contrast, foreign students, H-1B workers, and tourists are part of the large category of temporary nonimmigrant admissions.

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The law provides for three general immigrant categories: family reunification, employment sponsorship, and humanitarian cases (refugee and asylum adjustments).
The majority of people who wish to obtain lawful permanent residence or a "green card" in the United States qualify because they are a family member of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, the employee of a U.S. company, or a refugee or asylum seeker who has been granted protection in the United States.

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The total yearly inflow of immigrants in these categories is composed of both new arrivals to the United States and status adjusters.
The number of all immigrants admitted to the country consists of two different types of flow. One is newly arrived lawful permanent residents — persons who were issued immigrant visas by the Department of State overseas. The other is status adjusters — persons who enter the United States in one legal status and then adjust or change to permanent residence while in the country.

For example, a person arrives in the United States on a temporary worker H-1B visa. If her company chooses to sponsor her for permanent residence, the employer can petition U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for a green card on behalf of the worker under an employment-preference visa.

If she meets the criteria and if annual, numerical ceilings for employment-preference visas have not been met, she will receive a card stating she is lawfully admitted for permanent residence. She is counted as a status adjuster for that year.

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The number of new arrivals remained relatively stable at about 400,000 annually between 1986 and 2008.
Although the number of adjustments has greatly varied between 1986 and 2008, the number of new arrivals has remained relatively stable, between 380,000 and 450,000 per year (see Figure 1). Processing problems with adjustments and backlogs at the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the current USCIS are primarily responsible for wide fluctuations in the total numbers.

 

Figure 1. Immigrants Admitted to the United States (in thousands): Total and by Type, 1986 to 2008
Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (various years). Download data as Excel file.


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In 2008, nearly 1.1 million people were granted lawful permanent resident status.
There were 1,107,126 immigrants who were granted legal residence in 2008. Of those, 466,558 (42.1 percent) were new arrivals who entered the country in 2008, and 640,568 (57.9 percent) were status adjusters. The status adjusters arrived in the United States in any year before 2008, but their green card applications were approved during 2008.

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Family reunification accounted for 65 percent of all lawful permanent immigration in 2008.
Immigrants who obtained green cards as spouses, children under 21, and parents of U.S. citizens (488,483), or as immediate family of lawful permanent residents and certain family members of U.S. citizens (227,761), accounted for 64.7 percent of all lawful permanent immigrants (see Figure 2). During the last decade, family-based immigration has accounted for about two-thirds of total lawful permanent immigration.

 

Figure 2. Percent of Total Immigration by Type, 1998 to 2008
Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (various years). (various years). Download data as Excel file

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Employment-preference immigrants made up 15 percent of all lawful permanent immigration in 2008.
The 166,511 immigrants who received green cards through sponsorship from their U.S. employers accounted for 15.0 percent of all LPRs.

The share of employment-preference immigrants is significantly smaller than that of family-based immigrants and has varied between 8.8 percent (56,678) in 1999 and 22 percent (246,878) in 2005 (see Figure 2).

Similar to the past, immediate family members accounted for more than half of employment-based immigrants. In 2008, 54.4 percent (or 90,576) of the employment-sponsored immigrants were spouses and children of principal applicants.

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In 2008, about 15 percent of all lawful permanent residents were status adjusters who entered as refugees or asylees.
(Note: these figures refer to those refugees and asylees who adjusted their status to lawful permanent resident in 2008. They do not refer to the numbers and percentages of refugee/asylum applicants granted refugee/asylum status in 2008.

Refugees and asylees who adjusted their status to LPR in 2008 constituted 15.0 percent of all lawful permanent immigrants.

The number and percentage of refugee/asylee adjustments of status varied significantly between 1998 and 2008, from 6.4 percent (44,764) in 2003 to 17.1 percent (216,454) in 2006 (see Figure 2).

Refugees are eligible to adjust to LPR status, without regard to numerical limit, after one year of residence in the United States. Similarly, asylees have to wait one year after they are granted asylum to apply for LPR status.

Until 2005, there was a limit of 10,000 asylee adjustments per year. The REAL ID Act of 2005 (enacted into law in May 2005) eliminated this 10,000 numerical limit. The number of asylee adjustments in 2008 (76,362) was more than seven times higher than in 2004 (10,217).

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There were about 58,000 "other immigrants" in 2008.
Less numerous groups of immigrants, such as persons and their dependents who legalized under the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, parolees, and diversity-visa lottery winners, are examples of "other immigrants." In 2008, there were 57,979 "other immigrants" who accounted for 5.2 percent of all lawful permanent immigrants.

Seventy-two percent of the "other immigrants" in 2008 (41,761) were people who received their immigrant visas through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, also known as the Green Card Lottery, run by the U.S. State Department.

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The State Department received more than 9.1 million qualified applications for the 2009 Diversity Lottery.
The Immigration Act of 1990 established the Diversity Visa Lottery (also known as the Green Card Lottery) to allow entry to immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. The act states that no more than 55,000 diversity visas are made available each fiscal year. Of the 55,000 visas, 5,000 have to be used for applicants under the Nicaraguan and Central America Relief Act of 1997, thus reducing the available number to 50,000.

Applicants who registered for the 2009 lottery (between October and December 2007) were selected at random from over 9.1 million qualified entries. The number of qualified entries totaled 5.5 million in the 2007 lottery and 6.4 million in the 2008 lottery. (The Department of State does not release the total number of applications received.)

The visas are divided among six geographic regions (Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, South/Central America, and the Caribbean), with no single country receiving more than 7 percent of the available diversity visas in any one year. Nationals of countries with high rates of immigration to the United States — such as Mexico, India, Canada, the Philippines, Russia, South Korea, Vietnam, the United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland), Pakistan, and China — are not eligible to participate in the lottery.

Before receiving permission to immigrate to the United States, lottery winners have to provide proof of a high school education or its equivalent, or show two years of work experience (in an occupation that requires at least two years of training or experience) within the past five years. They also have to pass a medical exam.

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Mexico, China, India, the Philippines, and Cuba were the top five countries of birth of lawful permanent residents in 2008.
The top five countries of birth — Mexico, China, India, the Philippines, and Cuba — accounted for 39.5 percent of all persons who received LPR status in 2008. Nationals of the next five countries — the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Colombia, Korea, and Haiti — composed another 13.2 percent of all LPRs. In all, the top 10 leading countries of birth made up more than half (52.7 percent) of the total (see Table 1).

As in 1998, the top 20 countries of birth in 2008 accounted for more than two-thirds of all LPRs (see Table 1). Seventeen of the 20 countries on the list in 2008 were also on the 1998 list. Poland, Russia, and Bangladesh dropped off the list, while Guatemala, Ethiopia, and Nigeria joined it. Poland and Russia were on the list as recently as 2005.

Table 1. Lawful Permanent Resident Flow by Country of Birth, 1998 and 2008 (Excel file)

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California, New York, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, and Illinois were the key destinations for LPRs in 2008.
California was the intended state of residence for 21.5 percent of all admitted LPRs in 2008. Other leading states of intended residence included New York (13.0 percent), Florida (12.1 percent), Texas (8.1 percent), New Jersey (4.9 percent), and Illinois (3.9 percent). The top 10 states of destination — which also included Massachusetts, Virginia, Georgia, and Maryland — accounted for 73.8 percent of all LPRs (see Figure 3 or download data for all 50 states and the District of Columbia as Excel file).

 

Figure 3. Percent Admitted LPRs by State or Territory of Intended Residence, 2008
Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (various years). (various years). Download data for all 50 states and the District of Columbia as Excel file.

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Additional Resources:

The Yearbook of Immigration Statistics and Annual Flow Report. Available online.

Definitions of terms can be found at the website of the Office of Immigration Statistics.

U.S. Department of State, "Diversity Visa Lottery 2009 (DV-2009) Results." Available online.