2009 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics Offers Some Insights

By David North on August 29, 2010

The newly issued 2009 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics provides some useful insights into how our government deals with immigrants, while simultaneously not providing some badly needed policy-relevant data.

The publication, as the name implies, is part of a long-running series of statistical reports – my own collection goes back to 1961 but the government's set must start in the 19th century. It is assembled and published by the Office of Immigration Statistics, the smallest of the four immigration-related agencies within the Department of Homeland Security.

Perhaps the most striking, if not the newest, bit of data is the simple fact that most of the new legal permanent residents (some 1,130,818 of them in FY 2009) are not new arrivals.

There are 667,776 people classified as having been through an adjustment of status (having arrived in the nation earlier and only later receiving a green card) and only 463,042 are termed "new arrivals." This has been true for many years. A handful of the adjustees are legacies left over from past amnesties, more are newly recognized asylees, but most are family members and one-time temporary workers who use existing mechanisms to convert from temporary legal status (or illegal status) to legal permanent resident (LPR or green card) status.

One of the things one sees quickly in the report is a statistical confirmation of the enormous complexity of the immigration process; there is, for instance, the five-page segment in tiny type entitled: "Table 7. Persons obtaining legal permanent resident status by type and detailed class of admission, FY 2009."

There is a line in the table for every single provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act that permits admissions to the U.S., such as this major one: "spouses of alien residents, subject to country limits, new arrivals (F21)" – there were 7,411 of them. Other lines are used for smaller groups of persons, such as "former employees of the Panama Canal Company or Canal Zone Government, adjustments." One or two people were in that category, but at that numerical level, for some odd privacy reason, DHS places the letter "D" rather than a one or a two. At three and above, the report provides numbers.

Underlining the complexity of the system, there are a total of 282 lines in Table 7, some of them with a single class of immigrants, and some with three or four related classes. Some interest group or groups, at some point in history, persuaded Congress that it was vital to make immigration possible for each and every one of these categories.

Some of these categories, of course, make excellent sense. There is a line for children of American Indians (214 of them in FY 2009) born overseas, perhaps northern border residents who prefer the Canadian health system. There is another line for "special immigrant interpreters who are nationals of Iran or Afghanistan," 89 people who put their lives at risk working with our armed forces presumably in Iraq, not Iran.

Then there are the two nepotism lines, for the "children of brothers/sisters of U.S. citizens." There were 24,535 of them in 2009, most of whom were new arrivals. These are the nieces and nephews of U.S. citizens.

Speaking of nephews, I have a perfectly respectable, pleasant, native-born nephew that I have probably seen no more than twice in 40 years; neither of us has suffered from our lack of contact. Whether we are both in the same country or not is not terribly important to either of us. I am not sure that it is appropriate public policy to add such distant relatives to our already overly large population. Spouses of citizens, yes, if the marriages are genuine; nieces and nephews, no.

But back to the annual report. It deals only with the outputs of the immigration process; it tells us, in some detail, about the actions of the immigration agencies, such as the number of new LPRs, the number of new citizens, refugees, and asylees; also the number of nonimmigrant admissions and the number of arrests and removals of illegal aliens. Useful information, to be sure.

It might be too much to ask for a government agency to discuss the impact of what it is doing to the society, but I do not think it unreasonable to print readily available data on its processes. For instance, USCIS knows how often it accepts and how often it rejects immigration petitions from would-be investors; why not share that with us? Similarly, the whole subject of what happens in the USCIS appeals process, the work of the Office of Administrative Appeals, is not mentioned. If the staff rejects petitions for Temporary Protected Status, for instance, what percent of the appeals are sustained? USCIS regards that as a secret.

More basically, to what extent do the DHS agencies say yes and no to people seeking benefits? Are these careful screening processes, or "let’em all in" systems, or are there different results related to different parts of the system? DHS knows, but won't tell.

Looking back, the 2009 report is a pale shadow of its old self; the 2000 report in my collection, for example, is a much richer document, covering many more subjects. There were two useful tables that year giving detailed information on newly arriving and renewed H-1B visas, by country of birth and occupation – important data on a controversial program.

Similarly, there was a whole section on legal actions and legislation that is now missing, and a handy graph showing visually how immigration has soared in recent decades, as opposed to the levels in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Maybe DHS does not want to present too much information in a too readily understandable form.

Trivia. Getting away from policy considerations for a moment, the 2009 report contains a rich trove of fun but insignificant facts and numbers.

For instance, people from what countries are least likely to want to migrate to the U.S.? This nation is not very attractive to folks in the Solomon Islands (where the Battle of Guadalcanal was fought); the report shows that "D" persons (one or two) came to America from there. Also near the bottom of the list are Monaco, 4, The Maldives, 6, and Sao Tome and Principe, 11, all lightly populated. There was zero immigration from North Korea, which has dictatorial exit controls.

Where do foreigners want to go when they get to the U.S.? People arriving with nonimmigrant visas (other than visa-waiver aliens and Mexicans with Border Crossing Cards) must tell DHS where they are going. The prime destinations, as one might guess, are California (5.8 million), Florida (5.5 million), and New York (4.7 million). Bringing up the rear are West Virginia, with 13,851, and South Dakota, with 10,537.

A whiff of history lingers in this report; as few Americans realize, Norway, which seems to be an ancient nation, became politically independent (from Sweden) only in 1905, making it a much younger polity than both Mexico and Bolivia. When our government began collecting immigration statistics Sweden and Norway were united, so, to this day, there is a Norway-Sweden entry with numbers for each, and then both. Similarly, the slightly later split of Hungary from Austria gets the same treatment.

The report, with more than 100 pages of numbers, must be a bear to proof-read; the only problem besides Iran/Iraq I noticed was the listing of Montenegro as a separate nation and another listing of Serbia and Montenegro, as another nation; maybe that will be fixed in time for the 2010 edition.