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Does the United States Admit a Reasonable Number of Legal Immigrants?


Over the past 20 years, the United States has granted legal permanent residence (green cards) to an average of more than 1 million persons per year:



Year Green Cards Issued
1989 1,090,172
1990 1,535,872
1991 1,826,595
1992 973,445
1993 903,916
1994 803,993
1995 720,177
1996 915,560
1997 797,847
1998 653,206
1999 644,787
2000 841,002
2001 1,058,902
2002 1,059,536
2003 703,542
2004 957,883
2005 1,122,373
2006 1,266,129
2007 1,052,415
2008 1,107,126
Average per year 1,001,715

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, 2008 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Table 1.

How does it compare to other nations? The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international organization with 30 member nations, issued this comparative chart:

Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, International Migration Outlook, 2008, Chart I.1, page 32. The words “OECD” on the horizontal axis refer to the average level of legal immigration for all of the members of the OECD.

The United States is above average in this group of nations. Notice that Ireland admitted a very high number of immigrants in 2006. That is because 2006 was the best year of Ireland’s economic boom. Since then, the boom has turned into a bust. Some of those people have now left Ireland, and the number of new arrivals has declined significantly. In terms of sheer numbers, in 2006, the United States took as many immigrants as Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Austria, France, and Australia combined.1 Those nations have a combined population of 410 million, compared to 300 million for the United States.

Depending on where you live in the United States, it might seem that there are a lot more foreigners living here than just the 1 million per year admitted as legal permanent residents (immigrants). One also must consider temporary non-immigrant visas, also known as work visas. A Green Card allows the holder to stay here permanently, as an immigrant. But a work visa only allows a person to stay here temporarily while working. When a person comes to the United States temporarily, that person is classified as a non-immigrant.

One type of work visa is the H-1B, commonly used in the high-tech industry. The H-1B allows a maximum stay of 6 years. Another type is the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa. When a person obtains a work visa, that person is issued an Employment Authorization Document by a U.S. government agency known as United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Below is the number of new Employment Authorization Documents (EADs) issued by the United States issued for each of the last five years. The agency that issues the EAD does so under three categories: new, replacement and renewal. The numbers below represent only the new EAD cards issued.

2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
673,717 675,231 682,160 854,186 912,735

Source: USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services), a division of the Department of Homeland Security. New I-765 cards issued 2004-2008.

Work visas often last more than 1 year, so over time the number of foreign born temporarily working in the United States builds up to millions of persons. At this time, I do not have data on how many temporary work visas other nations issue compared to the United States. However, with those kinds of numbers, it would be very surprising if the United States did not compare favorably with other nations.2 Taking the number of green cards and work visas together, it seems to me that the United States is quite generous about letting people into this country.

Many argue that the procedure for obtaining a green card or work visa can be very cumbersome and time-consuming. That can and should be remedied. But over 1 million people do follow the rules each year. They enter the United States while respecting and obeying our laws.

Based on the above figures, it is clear that United States immigration law and policy admits immigrants in numbers that are above average for the developed world. While over 1 million Green Cards per year may be too low for some, it is too high for others, particularly if you look at immigration levels prior to the advent of chain migration in the late 1960s.

Update: This is the first part of a series of blogs that will make some larger points. It was too much to fit in one blog. Things will clear up as I develop the ideas over several blogs.

CHARLES BREITERMAN is a Lawyer and Research Analyst for NumbersUSA

1Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, International Migration Outlook, 2008, Table I.1, page 29.

2There are approximately 12 million persons living illegally in the United States. Their presence contributes to the accurate perception that there are a lot of new arrivals in the United States. Since they are here illegally, they are not relevant to this blog’s topic of whether the United States admits a reasonable number of people legally. Therefore, I am only mentioning them in this footnote.

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