Who Gets in In?

I’ve studied immigration for years, but now that I’m prepping an Economics of Immigration class for the fall, I’ve been learning some new facts.

Today’s question: Who actually gets into the U.S. legally?  Here’s what I found in the latest Yearbook of Immigration Statistics.

I’ve long known that family reunification is the heart of U.S. immigration policy, but I didn’t realize the extremity of the pattern.  In 2018, 44% of visas went to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, and another 20% were for family-sponsored visas.  Much more strikingly, only 13% of visas were for employment!  I knew that the U.S. admits few refugees and asylees, but I wouldn’t have guessed that employment-based immigration is even rarer.  And I wasn’t even aware of the Iraqi/Afghan and victim categories, all of which plausibly count as humanitarian as well, for a grand total of 20% humanitarian in 2018.

I know how nativist U.S. public opinion is; while the share of Americans who want more immigration is rising, over 70% still oppose liberalization.  Still, I find it hard to believe that either liberals or conservatives would be pleased by the low level of employment-based immigration.  Faced with these figures, liberals would probably draw the relatively reasonable conclusion that we should double or triple the number of employment-based visas.  Conservatives, for their part, would probably want to “make more room” for employment-based immigrants by cutting family-based and especially humanitarian visas.  Never mind the fact that the U.S. has nothing but room!

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