Immigration By The Numbers


How many immigrants should the United States accept each year?

If someone tells you that there should be no immigration at all into the United States, you are arguing with someone who is irrational. For a variety of reasons there will always have to be some. Emotion is no substitute for an intelligent discussion.

On the other hand, if someone takes the position that anyone who enters the United States has a right to stay here, obtain legal permanent residence and eventually citizenship, you are again dealing with someone who has staked out an emotional response. We should exclude them too in a discussion of what is a reasonable number of people for the United States to take in a given year and in what categories.

It is clear to me that if we announced a new law that granted legal permanent resident status and eventual citizenship to anyone entering this country we would have tens or hundreds of millions of takers. I cannot imagine congress or the American people agreeing to this. Despite claims of racism and income inequality by some, the world knows that this is the land of opportunity, equality and the rule of law. We may not be perfect but some would say we are the worst country in the world except for all the others. In any event, I do not see any major emigration from the United States to any other country.

According to the DHS, the United States, during 2017 the last year for which statistics are available, granted 1,127,000 immigrants the right to come to the United States and remain legally for life. [i] Aliens who are granted this status are referred to as legal permanent residents or LPRs. About three quarters of these LPRs will eventually become United States Citizens. A small percentage will return to their country of origin. The point of this article is that good people can argue to increase or decrease immigration for a variety of reasons but those who espouse the extremes have not thought this issue through. We need to think it through. Let’s look at the extremes, discuss categories, and then explore some rational alternatives.

We need to start a dialogue as to what numbers make sense and why.

Reducing immigration to zero or near zero makes no sense. We are part of a world economy and that world is one of trade including goods and people. There has been much talk about “chain migration”. That is a concept designed to justify limiting family immigration. Currently the quotas allow some 480,000 aliens to become legal residents of the United States. Additional numbers are granted to United States citizens who marry and who wish to bring their spouses, minor children and parents. In 2017, 516,000 people obtained LPR status that way.

These numbers do not include children born here to legal residents, non-immigrants, aliens in proceedings or being processed for some legal status, and illegal aliens. These numbers are hard to find.

American service and business personnel stationed abroad often marry and wish to return with their spouses. It is difficult to deny our citizens these rights. The spouses who come here cannot apply for American citizenship for three or five years. It takes at least another year and often longer to apply and obtain U.S. citizenship for that spouse and then years more to apply for additional relatives. It can take decades to bring siblings and their families here as LPRs. The so-called chain migration will not overwhelm us. We can argue around the numbers some but I would argue that any major change in this number would be difficult to justify especially in an era of extreme political polarization. [ii]

140,000 aliens come under the employment categories. If we want to have an international economy we need to allow an exchange of employees. These aliens include business executives, aliens with exceptional abilities, aliens with certain skills in short supply, scientists, professors and investors. Businesses that locate offices here and American businesses with operations abroad all from time to time need to transfer employees internationally. If we are to play in this international environment this category has to remain. I would also argue that this is where we might increase the numbers some, but any major change would be difficult to justify. [iii]

We take 55,000 diversity aliens each year. This is based upon a lottery and was originally introduced with the support of Senator Edward Kennedy in part as a vehicle to allow Irish immigration by creating a lottery and initially setting aside forty per-cent for Irish immigrants. Although the rules have since changed, this remains a category that is hard to justify going forward and the numbers from the diversity lottery might be better used in the employment category. Many may argue that the United States is already the most ethnically, religiously and racially diverse society on the planet and that the diversity numbers might be better used bringing more diverse skills and ideas into our society.

Some 146,000 refugees and asylees became LPRs in 2017. This number has been greater and might be smaller. I suspect the number will rise in the future. The president should have the authority to increase of decrease that number, as world conditions require. The temptation to eliminate or severely restrict refugee admissions might cut this number temporarily since refugees apply from abroad. Asylum applicants apply here and to a large extent are decided in the Immigration Courts where they linger for many years. Large numbers of these immigrants are not counted every year because of the backlogs in our immigration courts, which often last for five or more years. [iv]

There are other categories accounting for over 80,000 legal permanent residents.

If the immigration bar is going to going to lobby for changes we have to understand that before congress will entertain any changes to these numbers we would need to justify the changes to the public in a meaningful way. It is not enough to say that immigrants create jobs or take jobs from American workers. It is not enough to say that the world needs our largesse.

It may be unrealistic to make major changes in these numbers. One million plus permanent immigrants a year is generous. If it is not generous enough, a cogent argument needs to be made why it is not and why we cannot satisfy our need for immigrants through an expansion of our temporary work visa categories. [v]

I will admit that I do not know how I would justify changes in most of the quotas. Immediate relatives have no quota and are the most important category for most Americans. Leaving that alone is an easy call.

Family quota preferences are more difficult. Requests for changes here might result in elimination of sibling cases and spouses and children of legal permanent residents. My efforts during IMMACT 90 would make me cautious in challenging these quotas. Once you open up the door anything can happen.

There are always unseen consequences to changes. After the Regan amnesty in the 1980s we got the Clinton’s IIRAIRA in the 90s making it significantly more difficult for aliens to remain and process their requests for legal permanent residence.

Without the support of the middle we would just get self-righteous responses from those who would claim to support increased immigration and smiles from those who do not. In each case the clear inability to do anything here would be used to tell us what we want to hear with the knowledge that nothing would be done. The fact is that most politicians want to tell each part of their constituency what it wants to hear. It is easier for them to talk out of both sides of their mouths and do nothing.

I guess I am a cynic but some might agree that our congresspersons like to tell us they agree with us as they Texas two-step around the issues.

Political asylum is another issue that politician types like to make big statements about. This category has been stretched to the limit. The immigration bar’s constant stretching of the definitions to include just about anyone who wants to stay here, has created a gap that makes it harder for the real refugees and asylees to take advantage of. We may have to look in other areas for ways to address this issue. [vi]

The immigration bar has to treat these issues the way other bar associations do, not as an interest group but as a bar seeking to do what is best for the American people and the rule of law. No criminal law bar association would advocate pardoning all criminals, or throwing all persons in jail for even the smallest infraction. A measured approach would make sense and would be respected by congress, the American people and the judiciary. The immigration bar needs such an approach here. As of this moment I do not think such a group exists. [vii]

[i] The numbers were about evenly split between those obtaining residence abroad and those adjusting their status in the United States.

[ii] There might be ways of assisting those with considerable waits but that would be the subject of another article.

[iii] Some accommodation for additional numbers for those on nonimmigrant work visas to adjust their status after a set number of years might be part of a rational discussion. After all, isn’t business the business of America?

[iv] During a recent dinner with a retired immigration judge we did some math and realized that if no more cases enter the EOIR it would take 25 years to get through the current EOIR backlog that includes a significant number of these cases.

[v] This too will be the subject of a later article.

[vi] Expect another article here.

[vii] Not AILA.

About The Author

Harry DeMell has been practicing visa, immigration and nationality law since 1978.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.