Immigration Policy in the United States: An Update

December 3, 2010

This document presents data through 2009 on permanent and temporary admissions of foreign nationals to the United States, the number and types of visas issued, the naturalization of residents, and enforcement of immigration laws.


This document updates the CBO's February 2006 paper Immigration Policy in the United States. It presents data through 2009 on permanent and temporary admissions of foreign nationals to the United States, the number and types of visas issued, the naturalization of residents, and enforcement of immigration laws—and makes comparisons with 2004, which was the most recent year for which most data were reported in the earlier paper.

The Immigration and Nationality Act sets immigration policy in the United States on the basis of four general objectives:

  • To facilitate the reunification of families by admitting people who already have a family member living in the United States,
  • To attract workers to fill positions in certain occupations for which there are shortages,
  • To increase diversity by admitting people from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States, and
  • To provide a refuge for people who face the risk of racial, religious, or political persecution in their home country.


The law allows foreign nationals to enter the United States to become legal permanent residents (LPRs) or to be in the United States for a specific purpose during a limited stay as temporary residents or visitors. To enter the country as a legal permanent resident, a national of a foreign country must obtain a visa. To enter the country as a temporary resident or visitor, a foreign national must obtain a visa, be a qualifying citizen of Canada or Mexico, or be a qualifying citizen of a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Program. (That program allows citizens of certain countries to travel to the United States for business or tourism for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa.)

The law also outlines a process by which foreign nationals who have been granted legal permanent residence may apply to become naturalized U.S. citizens. In addition, the law establishes mechanisms to control the flow of legal entry into the United States, prevent the entry of individuals without authorization, and remove individuals who are in the United States without authorization.

Legal Permanent Residents

People granted permanent admission to the United States are formally classified as legal permanent residents and receive a document, commonly known as a green card, that certifies that status. LPRs are eligible to live and work in the United States, own property, and join the armed forces; eventually, they may apply for U.S. citizenship. In 2009, the United States granted LPR status to roughly 1.1 million people.

Foreign nationals who are eligible for permanent admission fall into one of five broad categories. Two of those categories--immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and family-sponsored preferences--are based on family relationships. Under a third category, employment-based preferences, workers with specific job skills are eligible for permanent admission. The fourth category is known as the Diversity Program, which allows individuals from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States to enter under a lottery-based system that provides a pathway for legal permanent residency. Finally, for humanitarian reasons, some foreign nationals are admitted to the United States as refugees or asylum-seekers; one year after obtaining asylum or refugee status, they may apply for LPR status.

People granted permanent admission include foreign nationals who entered the United States as legal permanent residents and those already present in the country who were granted LPR status. Of the people granted LPR status in 2009, about 463,000 (or 41 percent) were first-time entrants to the United States, and about 668,000 (or 59 percent) were already inside the United States. In 2009, foreign nationals who were born in Asia accounted for 413,000 (or 37 percent) of the people granted LPR status, and people who were born in North America (which includes Central America) accounted for 375,000 (or 33 percent).

The total number of permanent admissions in 2009 was about the average for the previous four years but 18 percent more than were granted such status in 2004. (Over the period from 2005 through 2009, the number of people granted LPR status averaged about 23 percent more than the number during the 20002004 period.) The number of immediate relatives of U.S. citizens who were granted LPR status increased by 28 percent from 2004 to 2009, accounting for nearly half of total permanent admissions in 2009. In contrast, the number of people admitted in the familysponsored preference category remained roughly constant from 2004 to 2009 and accounted for 19 percent of admissions in 2009. The number of individuals admitted on the basis of employment preferences decreased slightly between 2004 and 2009 and accounted for 13 percent of admissions in 2009. Admissions under the Diversity Program accounted for only 4 percent of the 2009 total and declined slightly from 2004 to 2009. The number of people admitted for humanitarian reasons, which constituted 17 percent of the permanent admissions in 2009, grew by almost 60 percent from its level five years earlier.

Temporary Residents and Visitors

Temporary admission to the United States is granted to foreign nationals who seek entry for a limited time and for a specific purpose, such as tourism, diplomacy, or study. In addition, foreign nationals who meet certain criteria may be permitted to work in the United States for a limited time that depends on the type of visa they receive. However, foreign nationals with temporary visas are not eligible for citizenship, and to remain in the United States on a permanent basis they would be required to apply for permanent admission.

The federal government reports two types of data on foreign nationals who enter the United States as temporary residents or visitorsthe number of temporary visas issued and the number of temporary admissions. The number of visas issued indicates the potential number of foreign nationals who may seek admission to the United States (excluding a large number who do not require a visa). The number of temporary admissions indicates the number of times that foreign nationals enter the United States, thus counting frequent travelers multiple times.

About 5.8 million visas for temporary admission to the United States were issued in 2009. Twenty-four percent were for temporary residents and 76 percent were for visitors. Although the number of visas issued in 2009 was 755,000 (or 15 percent) higher than the number in 2004, it was down by almost 800,000 (or 12 percent) from the 6.6 million visas issued in 2008. The decrease was most likely a result of the global recession: Fewer visas were issued for business, for tourism, and for employment.

The number of legal temporary admissions was much greater than the number of visas issued. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates that there were 163 million legal temporary admissions to the United States in 2009. That estimate includes 126 million admissions not requiring visas by Canadians traveling for business or tourism and certain Mexicans with Border Crossing Cards. It also includes about 36 million admissions of foreign nationals who were required to complete an Arrival/Departure Record (known as an I-94 form); about 16 million of those admissions were individuals who entered under the Visa Waiver Program, and the rest had visas. Many individuals had multiple admissions because they departed and reentered the United States during the same year.

The number of legal temporary admissions in 2009 was the lowest since DHS began reporting those data in 2003 and was about 10 percent less than the number admitted in 2004. The numbers presented throughout this document represent the flow of foreign nationals into the United States in accordance with U.S. immigration law. Information on the departures of temporary residents and visitors after their authorized stay is currently not recorded. Official estimates are available only on departures of LPRs.


Legal permanent residents may become citizens of the United States through a process known as naturalization. To become a naturalized citizen, an applicant must fulfill certain requirements set forth in the Immigration and Nationality Act. In general, any legal permanent resident who is at least 18 years old and who has maintained the specified period of continuous residence and presence in the United States can apply for naturalization. In 2009, about 744,000 people became naturalized U.S. citizens, well below the number naturalized in 2008 but close to the average for the past five years. Of the 2009 total, the largest percentages of people were born in Mexico (15 percent) and India (7 percent).

Enforcement of Immigration Policy

In addition to regulating the legal admission of permanent residents and temporary residents and visitors, U.S. law specifies policies for individuals in the United States without legal authorization. People found to be in the United States in violation of immigration law may be allowed to depart voluntarily or may be removed from the country through a formal process of adjudication, which can include the imposition of penalties (such as fines), a prohibition against future entry, or both.

In addition, individuals convicted of certain crimes can be imprisoned before they are removed from the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security is responsible for enforcing immigration law and acts to arrest, detain, return, and remove foreign nationals who violate U.S. laws. In 2009, about 580,000 people who were arrested or detained returned voluntarily under the supervision of a DHS official to their home country or to another country, a figure that is well below the number in recent years. Also in 2009, about 393,000 people were ordered removed, which is 63 percent more than were ordered removed in 2004. Of those 393,000 removals, 107,000 were carried out using an expedited process designed to speed up the removal of people attempting to enter the country illegally. In 2009, about two-thirds of total removals were for noncriminal violations, such as a lack of proper documentation, and the other one-third were for criminal violations of U.S. laws. (Although various estimates exist, there is no way to count the total number of individuals who enter the country illegally or how many of them leave voluntarily.)