The Relative Handful of Self-Starting Immigrants in Our System

By David North on December 9, 2009

Although once-upon-a-time all immigrants were self-starters, only a tiny minority of legal immigrants now are in this category – all because of our peculiar immigration policies.

As promised in a previous blog here is some information on this interesting subset of immigrants.

Most immigrants are non-self-starters, being nominated by U.S. residents, or U.S. employers, and in a smaller number of cases being linked with U.S. refugee resettlement organizations. Tiny groups – ex-U.S. employees abroad, for instance -- are nominated by our government. The self-starter definition is my own, and is based on government documents, but the U.S. government does not make this distinction; it is unlikely to do so, as it would cast some doubts on our current immigrant-selection system.

In fiscal year 2008, the Department of Homeland Security recorded the award of the green card to
1,107,126 individuals, some of whom were newly arrived, and some of whom were living in the U.S. and were adjusted from some other category to that of permanent resident alien. The source is the DHS annual Yearbook of Immigration Statistics.

Of that number, a mere 124,291 were self-starters, that is only 11.2% of the total.

Among the approximately 300 legal immigrant categories shown in table 7 of the above-cited report, I found only five groups that could be called self-starters, these are: the asylees, the diversity (or visa lottery) holders, ministers of religion, other religious workers, and investors; the principals in these groups and their spouses and children who arrived with them constitute the 124,291 total.

Asylees are much like refugees, in that they are said to be fleeing tyranny or some other catastrophe, but they are in the U.S. either legally or illegally, and their claims to asylum status are screened either by DHS officials or by immigration judges. (Refugees are screened overseas by U.S. agents.) The diversity program – surely the most easily disposable part of the system – is for those who win the visa lottery. They must be citizens of a nation which does not send us many immigrants, and have a high school diploma or its equivalent.

Investors must agree to put some money into job-creation efforts in the U.S.; this is a program that had been abused in the past. The two religious classifications are probably included as the result of the lobbying of the Catholic Church, and the declining interest in Americans in becoming priests and nuns. Non-Catholics can be admitted as well.

The numbers in each of these groups in FY 2008, and their average family size, which I calculated from the DHS data, are shown below:

An interesting aspect of the data above is that with the exception of investors – presumably largely mature people with children -- the family size of the self-starter groups are smaller than those of the U.S.-nominated populations, and thus are likely to have less of a long-term demographic impact on the nation than other immigrant groups. The presence of some priests and nuns presumably helps hold down the averages in the two small religious groups.

The children of the brothers and sisters (included in the data shown above) are, of course nieces and nephews, and the word nepotism is derived from the word nephew.

The government – and sadly most academics – rarely look at legally-defined subsets of immigrants for analytical purposes. To do so might support proposed changes in immigration management.

There was a minor exception to that some dozen years ago in that the 1997 U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform published a study of mine on refugee resettlement costs that touched on the differential use of income transfer programs by refugees and ayslees.

Digging around in unpublished social security and food stamp data I found that the asylees, people who got to the U.S. on their own – as opposed to the refugees who arrived on the U.S. dime – were much less likely to use assistance programs. The utilization of SSI (pensions for the low-income disabled and elderly) was recorded at 8.4% for the asylees and 17.9% for the refugees; similarly (and using a different governmental data source) I found that the use of food stamps at that time was 24.8% for the asylees and 44.9% for the refugees.

There is, incidentally, a visa category for the admission of truly outstanding foreigners, O class visas are called the "Genius Visas", and less than 10,000 are used annually. But these are not available to would-be immigrants, only to non-immigrants.

Category 2008 Green Card Awards Avg. Family Size
Asylees 76,362  1.90
Diversity/Visa Lottery  41,761 1.87
Ministers 2,566 2.16
Other religious workers 2,242 1.77
Investors 1,360 3.11
In comparison, two groups of U.S.-nominated Immigrants
1980 Refugee Act refugees 90,030 2.70
Brothers and Sisters of citizens 68,859  2.46
Source: 2008 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Table 7