New DHS Data Shows the Changing Face of U.S. Immigration


Government reports highlight key green card and naturalization trends

Jan 6, 2020


The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics closed out 2019 by publishing a swathe of new immigration data that offers an important portrait of new arrivals to the United States — and gives a preliminary snapshot of some of the ways that President Donald Trump’s policies are changing the face of U.S. immigration.

There’s plenty to pore over in the new reports, but here are our top takeaways:

1. Fewer Europeans and Asians, more Latin Americans

Latin American Immigrant

President Trump’s efforts to promote European immigration and reduce immigration from African and Latin American countries hasn’t borne fruit; 2018 saw the lowest number of green cards issued to people from Europe and Asia since at least 2010:

  • The number of green cards issued to Europeans is down 12.8% from 2016 levels, and down about 10.5% from 2010 levels
  • The number of green cards issued to Chinese people is down 20.4% from 2016 levels, and down about 9% from 2010 levels
  • The number of green cards issued to Indians is down 8% from 2016 levels, and down more than 13% from 2010 levels

By contrast, the number of green cards issued to people from the Americas has climbed sharply:

  • The number of green cards issued to people from the Caribbean has risen almost 30% since 2010, driven by a 125% increase in green cards issued to Cubans
  • The number of green cards issued to Central Americans has risen almost 34% since 2010
  • The number of green cards issued to Venezuelans has risen by 17% since 2010
  • The number of green cards issued to people from Mexico is up about 16% since 2010

The number of people from Africa who received green cards in 2018 is also up significantly, by about 15% from 2010 levels.

2. Family ties a key driver of immigration

Indian Immigrant family

Overall, fewer green cards have been issued since President Trump took office: the total number fell 2.7% in 2018, and was down 7.3% from 2016. Still, family ties remain a key driver of immigration to the United States. Of the almost 1.1 million people who became green card holders in 2018, 63% obtained permanent resident status based on a family connection to a U.S. citizen or green card holder.

That’s in line with recent averages: between 2009 and 2018, 45% of new residents received their green cards as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, and 21% gained green cards in family preference categories. By comparison, just 13% of green card holders came to the United States in employment-based immigration categories.

In total, almost three-quarters of new green cards issued to people from the Americas were awarded in family-based categories, compared to 56% of green cards issued to people from Asia and 51% issued to European immigrants. By contrast, 21% of Asian immigrants and 25% of European immigrants used employment-based green cards, compared to 6% of immigrants from the Americas.

3. Longer wait times for AOS applicants

A clock against an orange background.

In 2018, a total of 567,884 people gained U.S. permanent residence using the Adjustment of Status (AOS) process from within the United States — the highest total since 2011, though still well below the 697,388 annual average seen between the 2005-2009.

The data shows that soaring wait times are taking a toll on AOS applicants. Between 2000 and 2017, an average of more than 32,000 people per year gained green cards via adjustment of status in the same year that they entered the United States. Since 2016, that average has fallen to just 14,385, and in 2018 only 9,811 people successfully obtained green cards in the same year they arrived in the country. In fact, in 2018 only 106,000 people received green cards within 2 years of entering the United States — the lowest total since 2004.

That doesn’t mean fewer people are receiving green cards: it just means people are waiting longer to get them. Look at people who entered the country in the previous five years and the trend reverses: in 2018, almost 414,000 green cards were issued to people who’d entered the country in the previous five years — the highest total since at least 2000.

4. It’s getting harder to get citizenship

New American citizens waving the American flag.

A total of 761,901 people received U.S. citizenship through naturalization in 2018, up 7.7% from the previous year and up 1.2% from 2016. Still, 11% of naturalization requests were denied in 2018, with the ratio of denials to approvals rising to its highest level since 2009. The total number of applications for citizenship decreased by 18% percent, from 986,851 in 2017 to 810,548 in 2018.

The length of time taken to obtain citizenship is also increasing, with people now averaging 8 years as a legal permanent resident before they naturalize, up from 7 years in 2016 and 6 years in 2011. There is a significant variation based on country of origin: on average, African immigrants obtain citizenship after 6 years as green card holders, while immigrants from Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean typically spend 11 years as residents before obtaining citizenship.

Despite that, North America has now taken over from Asia as the main source of new citizens. Almost 132,000 people born in Mexico received U.S. citizenship in 2018 — the highest number for at least a decade, and almost twice as many as in 2010. That compares with more than 52,000 new Americans from India; 39,600 new citizens from China; 38,800 new citizens from the Philippines; and more than 32,000 new citizens from Cuba.

5. Immigrants are making an economic contribution

People working in the office.

Not counting students and children, more than 70% of new green card holders had jobs, and only 1 in 8 were unemployed, with most of the remainder being retired, or working as homemakers. Of the new green card holders with jobs, almost 40% were employed in professional or management roles, while about 20% worked in transport or manufacturing jobs, and about 15% each worked in service and sales positions.

Those green card holders who go on to gain citizenship are also making valuable contributions: almost 90% of new citizens were of working age. In total, 56.5% of the people naturalized in 2018 were aged between 18 and 44 years old, compared to just 36.5% of the general U.S. population — a reminder that youthful, hard-working immigrants remain a vital economic counterbalance to the graying U.S. population.


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