2-Pane Combined
Full Summaries Sorted

U.S. Immigration - Lessons 2 & 3

Author: Mark Hugo Lopez, Director of Global Migration and Demography Research, Pew Research Center

Lopez, Mark Hugo. “Lesson 2 📚 : Legal Immigrants.” Mini-Course, Pew Research Center, 31 July 2019, Lopez, Mark Hugo. “Lesson 3 📚 : Unauthorized Immigrants.” Mini-Course, Pew Research Center, 31 July 2019,


Who are legal immigrants, and how do they come to the U.S.?

There are 35.2 million legal immigrants living in the United States today, making up three-quarters of the foreign-born population. More than half are naturalized citizens (immigrants granted U.S. citizenship). Most of the rest were admitted to the U.S. with a visa or other permission and later acquired legal permanent residency status, also known as a green card. A smaller number of legal immigrants are in the U.S. on temporary visas.

The majority are U.S. citizens.

Fully 21 million legal immigrants are naturalized citizens, who have taken an oath swearing allegiance to the United States. Citizenship gives them the right to vote, protection from being deported and other legal rights.

Among immigrant adults who are eligible to become citizens, about two-thirds have done so, and the percentage has gone up in recent decades, though citizenship rates vary widely by birthplace. Only about four-in-ten eligible immigrants from Mexico are citizens, compared with eight-in-ten from the Middle East. In a Pew Research Center survey of Latino adults, lawful Mexican immigrants who had not applied for citizenship cited reasons including lack of English proficiency, limited interest in applying and the financial cost of the application.

A green card is one requirement for citizenship.

To become citizens, immigrants must have first lived in the U.S. as legal permanent residents (or green card holders) for a certain amount of time (usually five years) and meet other requirements. About a million immigrants a year receive a green card that gives them permission to work, travel outside the U.S., receive some federal benefits and be eligible for citizenship. About half of the immigrants who receive green cards already were living in the U.S., often on temporary visas. Let’s look at the most common ways immigrants receive green cards.

Most green card holders enter the U.S. to join family members.

66% of green cards went to immigrants sponsored by family in 2017.

Family-based immigration – referred to as “chain migration” by some who want to reduce it – has long been the most common way people gain green cards. About two-thirds of new green cards granted each year go to immigrants sponsored by family members who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. Immediate relatives of adult U.S. citizens – spouses, minor unmarried children and parents – received 46% of green cards in 2017, with no quotas on how many can receive them each year.

Another 21% of green cards went to other relatives of U.S. citizens, and to immediate relatives of legal permanent residents. Annual quotas for these categories result in long waiting lists, sometimes of 20 years or more.

Green cards for refugees could decline because fewer are admitted.

13% of green cards went to refugees and asylum seekers in 2017.

An additional 13% of those who got green cards are already in the U.S. either as refugees or people granted asylum. To qualify, both groups must prove they would be persecuted or have a realistic fear of persecution in their home countries. Refugees apply from abroad, while asylum seekers apply after arriving in the United States. Refugees must file paperwork for a green card after living in the U.S. for a year; asylum seekers are eligible, but not required, to apply. The number of refugees admitted to the U.S. annually has fluctuated over the years, and has declined since President Trump took office. The top birth countries for U.S. refugees differ from those of other immigrant groups, often reflecting the conflict zones they come from: D.R. Congo, Burma (Myanmar), Ukraine, Bhutan and Eritrea were the largest sources in 2018. Past regional conflicts have resulted in different origins in earlier decades, including Southeast Asia in the 1970s and Europe in the 1990s.

Most who receive job-related green cards are in the U.S. already.

12% of green cards were employment-based in 2017.

There are 2.2 million people living in the U.S. on temporary visas, mainly students, temporary workers and their immediate families. In 2017, 12% of green cards went to immigrants and their families based on the immigrant’s employment or skill, usually with employer sponsorship. Most of these employees were high-skilled workers, and most already were in the U.S. on temporary visas.
The largest temporary employment visa program is the H-1B visa for high-skilled workers, mainly for occupations in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). There is high demand for the limited number of these visas. Other temporary work categories include agricultural workers and seasonal employees.

When it comes to foreign students, the U.S. has more in its colleges and universities than any other country.

Millions apply for 50,000 visas in the diversity lottery.

5% of green cards went to immigrants in the diversity visa program in 2017.

About 8% of legal permanent residents are admitted under smaller green card categories. The largest is the “diversity” lottery, which grants about 50,000 visas a year – 5% of green cards – to applicants from nations with relatively few immigrants in the U.S. In 2017, more than 22.4 million people applied. In the recent past, applicants have come mainly from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. As with all visa programs, successful applicants must pass a background check.

Who are unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.?

There are 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, according to the latest Pew Research Center estimate from 2017. Some crossed the U.S. border illegally, and others arrived on temporary legal visas but stayed past their deadlines.

To arrive at our estimate, we use U.S. Census Bureau data to establish the size of the total foreign-born population, subtract the number of lawful immigrants, and then use the remainder to estimate the size and characteristics of the unauthorized immigrant population.

There are fewer than a decade ago.

When the recession began in 2007, there were 12.2 million U.S. unauthorized immigrants.

After rising for many years, the number of unauthorized immigrants peaked at more than 12 million in 2007, the first year of the Great Recession. The total declined after that and the 2016 total was the lowest since 2004. By contrast, the number of legal U.S. immigrants has continued to rise.

Most have lived in the U.S. for at least a decade.

About two-thirds of unauthorized immigrant adults have lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years, and that share has grown over time. A smaller percentage, compared with a decade ago, has been in the country for five years or less.

Mexicans are the largest group, but the share of non-Mexicans is rising.

5.6 million unauthorized immigrants were born in Mexico, as of 2015.

The number of Mexicans and their share of the total unauthorized immigrant population have been going down in recent years, and Mexicans are no longer the majority of unauthorized immigrants. Meanwhile, the numbers from Asia and Central America have risen over the past decade. The birth regions and countries of unauthorized immigrants differ from those of legal immigrants. Lower shares of unauthorized immigrants are from Asia, Europe, Canada, and the Caribbean and a higher share are from Mexico.

Most unauthorized immigrants live in just six states.

About six-in-ten unauthorized immigrants live in 20 major metro areas – with the biggest populations in New York, Los Angeles and Houston. These areas also have large legal immigrant populations. By contrast, a little more than a third of the overall U.S. population lives in these areas.

Most unauthorized immigrants live in just six states: California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois. Again, these are top states for legal immigrants too, but only about 40% of the total U.S. population lives there.

Nearly 8 million are working or looking for work.

That number (which is nearly 5% of the total U.S. workforce ) has declined from a decade earlier. The employment patterns of unauthorized immigrants are different from those of legal ones or of workers born in the U.S.

Unauthorized immigrant workers make up a higher share of some occupations – especially farming and construction – than they do the total workforce. But in all major occupational categories, U.S.-born workers are a majority.

They are parents to more than 5 million children who live with them.

Most of these children (5.0 million) were born in the U.S. and are U.S. citizens, while nearly 700,000 are unauthorized immigrants themselves. Children of unauthorized immigrants make up nearly 8% of the nation’s K-12 students.

While the number of U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants had been rising for decades, in recent years, the number of births to unauthorized immigrant mothers has declined.

At least 1.5 million cannot be deported, for now.

195,000 immigrants with Temporary Protected Status are from El Salvador.

They have applied for asylum and their cases are pending, or they have protection (and are eligible to work legally) under two government programs. The first, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), covers about 700,000 young adults who were brought to the U.S. as children. The second program, Temporary Protected Status (TPS), applies mainly to Central American immigrants from countries the U.S. government deemed dangerous because of disease, natural disaster or conflict. The government has announced it is ending TPS protections for most countries in this program.

Fewer are caught at the border than a decade ago.

The number of people caught at the U.S.-Mexico border while trying to cross illegally – one measure of unauthorized immigration trends – generally rises and falls from month to month, according to government statistics. However, the number of apprehensions has increased since 2017, after declining for the past decade.

One notable change is that Mexicans no longer accounted for the majority of border apprehensions in some recent fiscal years. In fact, from 2009 to 2014, more Mexican immigrants (both lawful and unauthorized) returned to their home country from the U.S. than migrated to the U.S.

DMU Timestamp: August 05, 2019 17:47

0 comments, 0 areas
add area
add comment
change display
add comment

Quickstart: Commenting and Sharing

How to Comment
  • Click icons on the left to see existing comments.
  • Desktop/Laptop: double-click any text, highlight a section of an image, or add a comment while a video is playing to start a new conversation.
    Tablet/Phone: single click then click on the "Start One" link (look right or below).
  • Click "Reply" on a comment to join the conversation.
How to Share Documents
  1. "Upload" a new document.
  2. "Invite" others to it.

Logging in, please wait... Blue_on_grey_spinner