United States of America

Background information Capital: Washington D.C.
Offical language: English
9,809,155 km2
(for comparison, Germany: 357,027 km2)
Population (6/2007):
Population density:
31 inhabitants per km2
Population growth (2003):
Labour force participation rate (2006):
75.5% (OECD)
Foreign-born population as a percentage of total (2003):
11.7% (33.5m persons)
Foreign-born labour force as percentage of civilian labour force (2006):
Unemploment rate:
4.6% (2006); 5.1% (2005); 5.5% (2004)
Religions (1999):
62M Catholics; 28.3M Baptists;


Immigration Policy

Major legislation up to 1980

Legislation since 1980
2Developments since 9/11
The terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 provided a new impetus for administrative reform of the immigration system. As the attacks were carried out by non-US nationals entirely within US territory, they were seen as a sign that cooperation between federal agencies, state police forces and border control personnel had become inadequate. Following the attacks, responsibility for immigration and border control was consolidated under the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Immigration and security issues were further brought into close association with the 2001 Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (PATRIOT) Act, which expanded the range of offences for which an immigrant could be deported and made it easier to detain non-US citizens for long periods of time.

Recently, several attempts have been made to reform immigration law in such a way as to reconcile labour market demands for immigrants with border control and security concerns. In December 2005, the House of Representatives passed a bill (H.R. 4437) which focused on tough new enforcement measures at the border, whilst the Senate passed a bill (S. 2611) in May 2006 which complemented stringent enforcement measures with substantially expanded opportunities for legal immigration and gaining citizenship. Neither of these bills was approved by Congress, and the continuing debate over an adequate means to address failures in the immigration system remains mired in partisan politics (see Current Issues).

Current Admissions Policy

Non-US citizens can be admitted to the US on a permanent basis in three general categories: family reunification, employment sponsorship and humanitarian cases. The number of people granted lawful permanent residence (LPR) status each year345


The number of people receiving LPR status each year has been increasing since the Second World War, quadrupling from an average of 250,000 persons per year in the 1950s to just over one million per year in the period from 2000 to 2006.6

In 2006, a total of 1,266,264 people were awarded LPR status, 447,016 (35.3%) of whom were new arrivals, and 819,248 (64.7%) of whom had adjusted their status (i.e. were not new immigrants, but people who had applied for LPR status while living in the US under a different permit). A total of 803,335 people (63%) acquired LPR status under family reunification provisions, 159,081 (13%) in the employment-based category, 44,471 (3.5%) in the Diversity Lottery, 216, 454 (17%) as refugees and asylees, and the remainder via other categories.

The Immigrant Population

In recent years, the immigrant population in the US has risen significantly. While there were an estimated 19.8 million foreign-born persons living in the US in 1990, this figure had risen to 33.5 million (or 11% of the total population) by 2003. The majority of the foreign-born population, 52%, was born in Latin America, while 25% were born in Asia, 13.7% in Europe and 8% in other regions of the world.7


All persons born in the US are automatically granted US citizenship. People who are not US citizens by birth may obtain US citizenship through the process of naturalisation, which requires the fulfilment of a series of criteria. The process can take anywhere from six months to two years. A legal immigrant who wishes to naturalise must be over 18 years old, must have lived in the US for at least five years (three years if married to a US citizen) and have no criminal record. Additionally, candidates must demonstrate English language proficiency and knowledge of US history and government by passing a naturalisation test.

Historically, less than half of all immigrants to the US have become citizens, but the level of interest in naturalisation has risen since the 1990s. At the beginning of the 1990s there were 6.5 million naturalised citizens living in the US, a number which had increased to 11.3 million (or 49% of the foreign-born population) by 2002. This increase has been attributed to measures restricting public benefits for non-citizens and changes in application fees.8 In 2006 a total of 702,589 persons were naturalised; the top five countries of birth of these new citizens were Mexico (12%), India (6.8%), the Philippines (5.8%), China (5%) and Vietnam (4.3%). The largest number of people who were naturalised in 2006 lived in the states of California (21.8%), New York (14.8%) and Florida (12.9%).9



Refuge and asylum

Refuge and asylum are similar in that they apply to non-citizens who are unable to return to their country of origin as a result of persecution or well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion. Whereas refugees are persons who apply for resettlement from outside the US, asylees do so from within the country or at a port of entry. Persons granted asylum or refugee status are entitled to work in the US, and both groups can apply for LPR status after one year of continuous residence.11

The quota for refugee admissions is set every year by the President in consultation with Congress, and it has been reduced significantly in recent years. In 1980, when the admissions ceiling was first introduced, it was set at 231,700 persons. Since 2004, the limit has been 70,000 per year. No quotas are set for asylum admissions.

In 2006 a total of 41,150 refugees were admitted to the US. The leading countries of origin were Somalia (25%), Russia (15%) and Cuba (7.6%). In addition to these refugees, 26,113 people were granted asylum in 2006. The top countries of origin for persons granted asylum in 2006 were China (21%), Haiti (12%), Colombia (11%) and Venezuela (5.2%).


Irregular migration


An area of serious discussion in recent years, especially in the states bordering Mexico, has been the policing of the southern border of the US. Attempts to prevent further undocumented arrivals, including the construction of barriers across various sections of the border, have just driven would be migrants to use more extreme measures to get to the US, resulting in a large number of fatalities.15

Border crossings by illegal immigrants have evoked strong emotions among the general public and have led a number of private individuals to set up groups to monitor these crossings. Some of these groups have been accused of acting more like vigilantes than independent monitors. It is clear that voluntary border control militias cannot be tolerated, and that border control activities must be left to official border agents. However, any policy to increase border control cannot stand alone and must form part of a comprehensive reform of immigration policy (see discussion below).

Current issues

Pressure has been mounting in recent years for the government to carry out significant reform of the US immigration system. Political debate in the area of immigration reform tends to centre on three interrelated aspects: border control and the national labour shortage, meeting the impending skills shortage, and accommodating the large number of irregular immigrants already residing in the country.

Reconciling labour market demand and public pressure for immigration control
The increasing global integration of labour markets has imposed new realities on any discussion regarding immigration. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that the domestic economy will create close to 60 million new jobs between 2002 and 2012, half of which will require no more than a high school education.(16) This economic expansion will coincide with a period when 75 million baby-boomers are set to retire, declining native-born fertility rates will be approaching replacement level, and native-born workers will be becoming ever more educated. The shortfall in semi- and unskilled labour resulting from these factors has already become visible in a number of sectors.

Essential labour is often provided by immigrant workers who are residing in the US without a permit. This is because the number of workers needed far exceeds the number of work permits available, and because long processing times can make applying for one of the limited numbers of H-2B visas (for seasonal workers or workers to fill temporary labour shortages) inconvenient for employers and workers alike. The Pew Hispanic Centre has shown that unauthorized workers make up 14% of all persons employed in construction and extractive occupations.17

The most recent attempt to reconcile labour market needs for semi- and unskilled workers with strong public demand to secure borders was the comprehensive immigration reform bill S. 1639 (hereafter referred to as the Senate bill), which was introduced in the Senate on 18th June 2007.18Facing the skills shortage
Businesses and universities in the US have long benefited from an influx of foreign talent. However, the number of people wishing to enter the US through legal channels far exceeds the number of visas available in employment-related visa categories. The annual quotas for H-1B visas for highly-skilled workers are usually filled within the first few weeks or months of the fiscal year. For all employment-related visas, large delays are difficult to reconcile with the needs of employers.

In order to improve legal channels of entry for skilled and highly-skilled workers, the Senate bill proposed the introduction of a points system. This points system would have been used to evaluate potential immigrants on the basis of their job-related skills, education, English language proficiency, etc. Those earning the most points each year would have been admitted until the quota for the year had been reached. In the long term, the introduction of such a system would have come at the expense of family-related immigration, which has been the main path of entry, even for skilled workers. It would have also marked a shift away from employer-led labour migration.

Accommodation of unauthorised immigrants residing in the US

Future challenges


  1. See Ngai (1999).
  2. See Durand et al (1999).
  3. The term year refers throughout to the US fiscal year, which runs from October to September.
  4. The information contained in this section is based on Jefferys (2007b).
  5. The means of calculating the actual limit are complicated and take into account, among other things, the number of people awarded LPR status in certain categories (e.g. immediate relatives of US citizens, who are not limited by a quota) in the previous fiscal year. The admissions quota for family preferences is not permitted to drop below 226,000. If the calculated quota falls below that minimum, it is set at 226,000 as a default. See Jefferys (2007b).
  6. See Jefferys (2007b).
  7. Information on region of birth, educational attainment and occupations of the foreign born is taken from Larsen (2004).
  8. See Margon (2004).
  9. See Simansiki (2007).
  10. See Waldinger, R. et al. (2007).
  11. For an overview of the refugee and asylum provisions in the US as well as current trends presented here, see See Jefferys (2007a).
  12. See Durand et al.(1999) and Gonzalez Baker (1997).
  13. See Jacoby (2006).
  14. Pew Hispanic Center (2006).
  15. The bill can be accessed on the website of the Library of Congress: http://thomas.loc.gov

About the Author:
Nicholas Parrott

E-mail: nicholasparrott@yahoo.co.uk

References and Further Reading

    • Glazer, N. (1998): The Incorporation of Immigrants in the United States. In M. Weiner and T. Hanami (Eds.), Temporary Workers or Future Citizens? Japanese and U.S. Migration Policies. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 56-76.
    • Jaynes, G. D. (2000): Introduction: Immigration and the American Dream. In G.D. Jaynes (Ed), Immigration and Race: New Challenges for American Democracy New Haven: Yale University Press, 1-43.
    • Refugees and Asylees: 2006
    • U.S. Legal Permanent Residents: 2006.
    • Joppke, C. (1999): Immigration and the Nation-State: The United States, Germany and Great Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Legrain, P. (2006): Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them. St Ives: Little, Brown.
    • Margon, S. (2004): Naturalization in the United States. Migration Information Source, Migration Policy Institute. Washington.
    • Martin, P.L. and Duignan, P. (2003): . Hoover Essays No. 25.
    • Pew Hispanic Center (2006): The Labor Force Status of Short-Term Unauthorised Workers. Fact Sheet, April 2006.
    • Naturalization in the United States: 2006.
    • Udea, R. (1998): Historical Conditions in the United States for Assimilating Immigrants. In M. Weiner and T. Hanami (Eds.), Temporary Workers or Future Citizens? Japanese and U.S. Migration Policies. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 31-55.
    • United States. Department of Homeland Security (2006): 2005 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Washington, D.C.


Further Internet links

Migration Research Group
Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.