Nonimmigrant Admissions Down 8% in FY 09: Some Thoughts

By David North on April 30, 2010

Presumably reacting to the recession, the flow of nonimmigrants into the United States fell 8 percent in FY 2009 from the previous year's total. The drop was from 39.4 million to 36.2 million, according to data just released by the DHS Office of Immigration Statistics.

Nonimmigrants are aliens coming to the U.S. temporarily, such as tourists, visiting business people, short-term workers, foreign students and others. The measure used by DHS is the number of admissions – a count of border crossings, rather than the population counts of a census. A foreign student, for instance, might enter a port of entry once in a year, or a dozen times; in the latter instance that would count as 12 admissions.

These data, though about legal aliens, mirror roughly similar information about the declining population of illegal aliens in the country, as reported by my colleagues Steven A. Camarota and Karen Jensenius in their July 2009 backgrounder "A Shifting Tide: Recent Trends in the Illegal Immigrant Population" in July 2009.

The new information, however, does not mirror the recent DHS data on the FY 2009 count of legal immigrants (i.e., green card recipients), which showed an increase of 2 percent – and there are sound reasons for this.

Why is it down for the nonimmigrants and up, a little, for the immigrants, in the same fiscal year comparison?

Setting aside for the moment some technical measurement problems, nonimmigrant movements vary more sharply than immigrant movements because of their very nature. An Icelander wanting to spend a relatively warm three-day weekend in New York City with his girlfriend, for example, could create two nonimmigrant admissions on little more than a whim. The act of becoming an immigrant, on the other hand, is usually a multi-year process and once set in motion probably stays in motion, so the variations in immigration movements are less pronounced than those of the nonimmigrants. You might call it momentum.

The Icelandic pair, incidentally, would have been for more likely to make the trip in FY 2008, before that country's banks collapsed, than in FY 2009.

Within the overall numbers for nonimmigrant admissions we can see other evidence that some international movements are, similarly, more subject to economics than others.

For example, despite the overall decline of 8 percent, the numbers of diplomatic admissions increased from 2008 to 2009 by 2.5 percent; similarly there was a 3.8 percent increase in foreign student admissions.

On the other hand, where economic considerations were more likely to play a role, there was a falloff of 12.7 percent in admissions of temporary workers and their families between the two years, and a huge 48.4 percent decline in the admissions of seasonal nonagricultural workers in the H-2B class (a group of unskilled workers.) The flow of tourists fell less sharply, by 5.6 percent.

It has been argued that one of the major reasons why there was a decline in the illegal alien population was the shrinking U.S. economy; so these data suggest that nonimmigrant workers and illegal ones were reacting to similar forces.

Getting back to the nonimmigrants, there was at least one instance in which increased governmental scrutiny, rather than economics, probably played a major role in the decline in the size of the flow. This was the sharp drop in admissions of nonimmigrant (R-1) religious workers; the numbers fell from 25,106 in FY 2008 to17,362 the next year, or by close to 31 percent.

I described, in a previous blog how three different government agencies had published studies of the program, all noting alarming instances of fraud within the program. The government started paying more attention to the program, and, as a result, the Visa Office reported that in FY 2009 it rejected, at least initially, more visa applications than it accepted, the only visa category in which it did so. The reduced visa issuances presumably had a lot to do with the reduced admissions, though these are two different measures, recorded by two different agencies.

The Office of Immigration Statistics released the data discussed above in electronic form; the "2009 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics" in hard copy will, if the future is like the past, come out in the summer.