Immigration Policy 101


Immigration has always been a powerful political topic, increasingly so in recent years. Despite its salience as an issue, decades have passed since Congress last passed significant immigration reforms. The majority of Americans agree that immigration and immigrants are good for America, but that the complex and outdated system needs to be reformed.

This presentation aims to provide policymakers and their teams a brief, high-level overview of the U.S. immigration system for the purpose of crafting immigration reform legislation. “Immigration Policy 101” includes legislative and administrative history, a look at the components of the current system, metrics to portray the impacts of the current system, and opportunities for reform.

The presentation is in six sections: You can use the navigation bar at the top of the page to jump to a specific section.

How We Got Here

Hundreds of thousands of people come to the U.S. each year through many immigration programs to reunite with family, work, contribute to the economy, and seek humanitarian relief. Despite the foundational role of immigration in America’s formation and continued growth and success, Congress has failed for three decades to significantly update the immigration system, and even the most popular immigration policy proposals continue to falter year after year. As a result, the U.S. is falling far short of its commitment to be a place of refuge for those in need, American families are struggling to navigate complex systems to stay together, and our economic and global competitiveness is increasingly at risk. Immigration is a competitive advantage and a critical part of America’s future—our elected leaders must demonstrate leadership by working together to strengthen and protect it.

Here is how we got here.


Over centuries, the United States immigration system has been constructed through a complicated weaving of congressional, executive, and judicial actions. At times, immigration laws and policies have been very restrictive and discriminatory, and at other times they have been more inclusive and welcoming.

In 1952, Congress overrode a presidential veto to pass the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), an immigration bill that, along with substantial amendments passed in 1965, established the framework for the immigration system we have today.

In the decades that followed, Congress amended this framework and targeted specific programs and issues through legislation like the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which allowed certain undocumented immigrants to legalize their status; the Immigration Act of 1990, which established the modern employment-based immigration system; and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which imposed new restrictions and penalties for violations of immigration laws, targeted primarily at undocumented immigrants and employers.



The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 repealed the racial quota laws and created the modern legal immigration system.


Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

Immigration Reform and Control Act paired a pathway to citizenship for millions with employer sanctions for hiring unauthorized workers


Immigration Act of 1990

The Immigration Act of 1990 established employment-based immigration, the Diversity Visa, and Temporary Protected Status (TPS).


Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996

Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act substantially expanded deportable offensess and established 3-and 10-year bars that prevent millions from adjusting status.


Post-9/11 Legislation

Post-9/11 legislation (e.g. the Homeland Security Act of 2002) brought immigration benefits and enforcement under control of newly created DHS and dramatically expanded border security and interior enforcement.

Oct 1965
Nov 1986
Nov 1990
Sep 1996
Sep 2001

2005-2014: Bipartisan Comprehensive Immigration Reform

At the turn of the 21st century, leaders in Congress began to pursue broad, comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

In 2005, Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ) introduced the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, which created the framework for future comprehensive immigration reform legislation, including the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, a comprehensive bill that dealt with border security, legal immigration programs, and legalization for undocumented immigrants. President George W. Bush expressed his support for the effort,1 which passed the Senate 62-36. The bill was not taken up in the House. A similar effort failed in 2007.

Congress failed to take up the issue again for many years. President Barack Obama, President Bush’s successor, waited until his second term to engage Congress on comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

In 2013, a bipartisan group of Senators known as the “Gang of Eight” and led by Senators McCain and Dick Durbin (D-IL), introduced the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, an expansive bill to overhaul the legal immigration system, invest heavily in border security, and allow undocumented immigrants to legalize their status. The bill passed the Senate in 2013 on a 68-32 vote, but the House of Representatives refused to vote on the bill, and it too died at the end of the Congress.

2014-2020: Legislative stalemate and the rise of restrictionism

The House’s failure to vote on the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill signaled the end of comprehensive reform efforts in Congress.

Following the bill’s failure, President Barack Obama issued a slate of executive orders intended to provide temporary relief to certain undocumented immigrants and bolster the outdated employment-based immigration system. While immigration policy experts and immigrant communities applauded the new policies—many of which remain in place today—some leaders in Congress accused the President of overstepping his authority, and refused to participate in further bipartisan immigration discussions.

As a result, far fewer immigration proposals were put forward or advanced in this period. The DREAM Act (discussed below) did not receive another vote until Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in 2018, and various proposals to modernize employment-based immigration or provide for immigrants who were veterans were similarly stalled.

At the same time, immigration restrictionists became more active in Congress, bolstered in part by presidential campaigns that were stoking anti-immigrant sentiment and proposing aggressive restrictionist policies. Following President Trump’s election in 2016, his administration began working with restrictionist leaders in Congress to introduce legislation like the RAISE Act, which would have cut legal immigration levels by 50%.

2020-Present: Bipartisan piecemeal proposals

Following the change in House leadership in the 2018 midterm elections and the change in presidency in 2020, some leaders in Congress found renewed energy for immigration reform. In the 116th and 117th Congresses, the House of Representatives managed to pass a number of significant immigration bills, including legislation intended to protect Dreamers, veterans, immigrants stuck in green card backlogs, mixed-status families, and more. Unfortunately, the Senate had now taken on the role of being the stalemate, and most of these bills never received a vote.

Some significant bipartisan efforts emerged. Legislation to remove per-country caps on green cards earned hundreds of bipartisan cosponsors. Proposals to support Afghan refugees who had supported U.S. military efforts in their home country had strong bipartisan support and was nearly included in a number of major must-pass legislative vehicles, as was another bipartisan effort to recruit foreign-born STEM professionals to support major infrastructure investments.

Even though legislation to reduce legal immigration levels became far less popular in this time, there was a parallel uptick in legislation to restrict access to humanitarian relief pathways, particularly the asylum program, like legislation to indefinitely extend the Title 42 expulsion policy.

As the 116th Congress entered its final hours, it appeared that a bipartisan deal consisting of investments in border security and restrictions on asylum paired with a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers might come together. While a final legislative proposal was never formally released, the bipartisan leaders of the effort committed to continuing their discussions and introducing legislation in future sessions of Congress.


After Congress failed to take up and pass meaningful immigration reform over the last few decades, presidents have increasingly used executive action to shape immigration policy.

2012 to 2016

While Congress delayed in passing an immigration reform bill, President Obama took executive actions, targeted at protecting the ability for immigrants in the United States to remain in the country and work, through the creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy.

In 2014, after the failure of the Gang of Eight’s bill to pass Congress, President Obama took further administrative executive action to expand DACA and establish Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), a program providing deportation protection and work authorization to parents of U.S. citizens and green card holder7 (the Supreme Court ultimately prevented implementation of these policies before they could go into effect, and the Trump Administration subsequently rescinded them).

President Obama also made improvements to the employment-based immigration system, including establishing a parole program for international entrepreneurs, improving access to work authorization for spouses of H-1B visa holders, and expanding the Optional Practical Training program for international graduates. President Obama also put in place enforcement priorities that reduced the arrest and deportation of individuals without criminal convictions.

2016 to 2020

President Donald J. Trump dramatically further extended the scope of executive action, overseeing more than one thousand immigration policy changes. These executive actions, agency directives, and rules primarily were focused on restricting the number of people who could immigrate to the U.S., and making it more difficult for immigrants already in the country to stay. Some of the most impactful actions included:

2021 - Present

President Biden also exercised executive action on immigration issues, beginning on his first day in office. The Center for Migration Studies has a complete list. Many of his executive orders were direct responses to the Trump Administration’s policies, rolling back or halting changes implemented or proposed under the previous administration (including proposed changes to public charge policy, naturalization tests, and increased fees).

Immigrants in America

From its founding, the United States has been shaped and enriched by immigration, welcoming individuals with diverse backgrounds, experiences, skills, and hopes to participate in and contribute to our nation. Here we look briefly at the immigrants who are living in America today and how they have changed over the past decade.

More than 45 million immigrants
live in the U.S., making up nearly14% of the total U.S. population.

There are 28.7 million immigrants employed in the U.S., about 17% of the total labor force.

17 million U.S. citizen children live with at least one immigrant parent.

More than 70% of the immigrant population in the U.S. is eligible to naturalize.


Some 45 million immigrants live in the U.S., making up nearly 14% of the U.S. population. This share is consistent with the immigrant share through most of the 19th century, until racial quotas in the early 1900s led to a drastic drop in the immigrant population. Since the 1960s, the immigrant population has been growing; in fact, immigrants and their children are responsible for more than half of U.S. population growth between 1965 and 2015.

According to, more than half (47%) of immigrants in the U.S. are naturalized citizens, more than a quarter (26%) are lawful permanent residents (LPR), 6% are on temporary visas, and 21% are undocumented. Immigrants live in every state in the nation, but more than half live in California, Texas, Florida, or New York. About 24% of immigrants are originally from Mexico, but the makeup of new immigrants is tilting more toward Asia.

Demographic Fast Facts

  • 45M immigrants in the U.S., making up nearly 14% of the total population
  • 21% are undocumented; 26% are lawful permanent residents, 6% are on temporary visas, and 47% are naturalized citizens
  • 71% of the immigrant population is eligible to naturalize


Some 30 million immigrants were working in the U.S accounting for 17% of the civilian labor force.

In 2018, immigrants
$458.7 billion
to state, local, and federal

In 2021, immigrants held more than $1.5 trillion in spending power after paying more than $540 billion in federal, state, and local taxes, stimulating local business activity by purchasing goods and services, according to estimates.

Undocumented immigrants, more specifically, contribute up to $195 billion to the U.S. economy, plus an additional $33 billion in federal and payroll taxes and up to $23 billion a year in state and local taxes, according to estimates. These billions of tax dollars fund our schools, hospitals, emergency response services, highways, and other essential services.

Immigrants make up roughly one-fifth of the essential workforce supporting Americans and responding to challenges like the COVID-19 crisis, including farmworkers, physicians, and domestic workers. Immigrants are also a critical part of the highly skilled workforce, where their work in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields drives innovation and strengthens our global competitiveness.

Immigrants are also highly entrepreneurial, launching new companies at twice the rate of native-born Americans and creating large numbers of jobs. This increases employment opportunities for native-born American workers, boosts wages, and strengthens the middle class.

Some 30 million immigrants are in the U.S. labor force, which accounts for 18% of the civilian labor force.


Immigrants represent a substantial, and thus critical, part of America’s essential workforce responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 23 million immigrants are essential workers, and two-thirds of them are serving on the frontlines. These medical, agricultural, food service, and other immigrant essential workers make up nearly 1 in 5 individuals in the total U.S. essential workforce.

Undocumented immigrants are one of the largest groups among the immigrant essential workforce, making up 5.2 million essential workers, of which nearly 1 million are Dreamers, immigrants who came to the U.S. at a young age. An additional half a million immigrants with temporary status work in essential industries, including 160,000 in essential telecommunications, information technology, and financial fields, 130,000 providing medical services, and 70,000 providing educational services.


As of 2021, some 10 million undocumented immigrants lived in the United States. According to analysis, most undocumented immigrants are long-term U.S. residents; more than two-thirds have lived in the country for at least ten years.

Many undocumented immigrants came to the United States at a young age and have known no other country as home; others have worked in the U.S. for decades. More than a third are the parent or spouse of a U.S. citizen.

Undocumented immigrants have at times been provided some processes to adjust to a legal status, but current immigration law makes that nearly impossible—an undocumented immigrant who leaves the U.S. and attempts to re-enter legally would generally be barred from reentry for many years. This keeps millions of people stuck in limbo, living in constant risk of deportation and family separation.

Using our Population Estimator tool below, you can see how the undocumented population breaks down nationally and by state and Congressional district.


About 3 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are “Dreamers” who arrived to the United States at a young age and have grown up here.

Roughly 600,000 Dreamers are currently protected by the DACA policy, which provides them with limited protection from deportation and authorization to work. DACA has been one of the most successful immigration policies in history. Among current DACA recipients, the average age is 28, and the average DACA recipient has lived in the U.S. for 22 years. Almost all DACA recipients have graduated high school, and nearly half (46%) have attained some college education. Most DACA recipients are working: more than 80% of DACA recipients participate in the labor force, and have contributed more than $100 billion to the U.S. economy since the policy was first implemented. Meanwhile, more than one-third of DACA recipients are married, and more than one-third have at least one child at home.

However, most Dreamers are not protected by DACA. Some Dreamers would be eligible for DACA, except a federal judge barred the government from processing initial applications; more than 90,000 applications for initial DACA are sitting at USCIS today.

Even more Dreamers arrived in the United States too recently, and cannot meet DACA’s arrival date requirements. This includes 600,000 students in K-12 classrooms across the U.S.. According to estimates, about 100,000 undocumented students will graduate from high school each year for the next five years without being able to access DACA.


Many immigrant families include individuals in different status, such as undocumented, documented, and citizens. It is particularly common for parents of U.S. citizen children to lack documentation—in fact, more than 4.6 million U.S.-born children younger than 18 are living with at least one undocumented parent. The U.S. citizens’ well-being and futures are inextricably connected to their parents’ immigration status.

Note: Estimates are for the total undocumented immigrant population who belong to selected groups. Undocumented individuals can belong to multiple groups; consequently, overlapping group statuses were taken into account to avoid double-counting. Estimates are rounded to 10,000. See Methodology for more information on how estimates were calculated and qualification characteristics for each undocumented immigrant group.

Source: analysis of 2019 American Community Survey augmented data

The Immigration System: Visas, Green Cards and Naturalization

From FY 15 to FY 19 (the most recent pre-COVID-19 years), an average of 9,745,000 visas was issued annually for individuals to enter the United States. Most come on a temporary basis, using short-term “nonimmigrant” visas; others move to the U.S. permanently as lawful permanent residents, using long-term “immigrant” visas (or “green cards”). Many will eventually apply to naturalize as U.S. citizens. The immigration system is a complex road map made up of dozens of different programs and pathways.


The Departments of Homeland Security (DHS), State (DOS), and The Departments of Homeland Security (DHS), State (DOS), and Justice (DOJ) manage most of the U.S. immigration system. The Bureau of Consular Affairs under DOS issues visas for individuals abroad seeking to come to the United States. DHS, through its subcomponents U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), adjudicates requests for immigration benefits like work authorization and adjustments of status (e.g., from a temporary program to lawful permanent resident status), as well as naturalization, and enforces immigration laws. DOJ, through the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), manages the immigration court system and conducts removal proceedings.Justice (DOJ) manage most of the U.S. immigration system. The Bureau of Consular Affairs under DOS issues visas for individuals abroad seeking to come to the United States. DHS, and its subcomponents U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), adjudicates requests for immigration benefits like work authorization and adjustments of status (e.g., from a temporary program to lawful permanent resident status), as well as naturalization, and enforces immigration laws. DOJ, through the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), manages the immigration court system and conducts removal proceedings.

Key Legal Authorities

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
Bureau of Consular Affairs
Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR)

Additionally, other federal agencies provide support and additional input, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which conducts background checks; the Department of Labor, which certifies employers to hire foreign workers and provides for worker protections; and the Department of Health and Human Services, which manages the Office of Refugee Resettlement and oversees housing of unaccompanied children apprehended at the border.

The ‘immigration road map’ is overwhelmingly complex,
with more than one hundred different visas and programs
for coming to the U.S. on a temporary (nonimmigrant)
and permanent (immigrant) basis.


Individuals seeking to come temporarily to the United States—for travel, business, to work, to study, or for other reasons—must be admitted on a nonimmigrant visa, meaning they do not intend to immigrate permanently. Some nonimmigrant visas, like the H-1B visa, are considered “dual intent,” meaning an individual can use them even if they intend to apply for an immigrant visa in the future.

Nonimmigrant visa issuances have fallen precipitously since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, dropping from 8.7 million in 2019 down to 4 million in 2020, and then only 2.8 million in 2021.

There are 87 types of nonimmigrant visas within 24 categories. The names of visas are based on the letter and number of the subsection in the INA authorizing them. These are some of the most commonly used employment-based temporary visas:


The Green Card Process

Individuals seeking to immigrate permanently to the United States must be issued an immigrant visa. Once an individual has an immigrant visa, they can also apply to become a lawful permanent resident and receive a green card. Oftentimes, the visa and green card application are done simultaneously. In some circumstances, individuals in nonimmigrant status can apply to adjust to a permanent status from within the U.S.

Immigrant visa issuances declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, falling from 462,000 in 2019 down to only 285,000 in 2021. Green card issuances, including individuals adjusting status from within the U.S., also declined from more than one million in 2019 to only 740,000 in 2021.

There are more than 130 classifications of immigrant visas (including derivative visas) within 14 categories. To become a lawful permanent resident, an individual must generally be sponsored and approved for a green card (typically sponsors are a family member or employer, though in some cases individuals can self-sponsor, including refugees and asylum-seekers). Below is a brief description of the process.

Transitioning from Temporary Visa to Green Card (Adjustment of Status)

  1. Some individuals living in the U.S. on nonimmigrant visas wish to become lawful permanent residents and receive a green card. This process is an example of “adjustment of status,” where an individual applies to adjust from one immigration status to another without leaving and re-entering the United States.The pathway from a temporary visa to a green card is restrictive, time-consuming and expensive.

  2. Federal law generally prohibits individuals from receiving nonimmigrant visas if they have “immigrant intent,” meaning their ultimate goal is to move to the U.S. permanently, though there are some exceptions. This can create significant barriers for certain classes of individuals that the U.S. should be interested in retaining, like international graduates of U.S. colleges and universities.

  3. Even if they qualify for a green card, excessive backlogs can keep applicants waiting for decades until they are allowed to adjust status to become green card holders. This leaves people stuck on visas, like H-1Bs, while they wait. This lack of a clear pathway to permanent residency has been driving highly skilled workers, as well as prospective students, to abandon the U.S. for countries with more streamlined immigration programs.

Green Card Statutory Limits

The number of employment-based, family-based, and diversity green cards available to prospective immigrants is limited to 675,000 a year, a cap set by the Immigration and Nationality Act, although some individuals and visa categories (such as refugees) are exempt from these limits. The 675,000 available green cards are divided among the three main visa categories, as described in the sections and table below).

Green card issuances are further limited by specific per-country caps on the number of visas that can go to individuals from one country each year, numbers rolling over to different categories, and specific pieces of legislation.

Family-based Immigration

Family-based immigration enables U.S. citizens or LPRs to sponsor certain family members for a green card.

The Immediate Relative (IR) categories have no numerical limits and are used for U. S. citizens sponsoring spouses, unmarried minor children, and parents, and have no numerical limits.

The Family Preference (F) categories are for U.S. citizens sponsoring unmarried adult children, married children, or siblings, as well as for lawful permanent residents sponsoring spouses and unmarried children. The total of all Family Preference categories is capped numerically at 480,000 (plus unused employment-based numbers from the previous year, minus the number of immediate relatives admitted the previous year, with a floor of 226,000).

U.S. citizens may also sponsor a fiancé/fiancée for a temporary “K” visa, which serves as the basis to become a green card holder upon marriage. Derivative beneficiaries (the children or spouses of those being sponsored for a green card) may also qualify for a green card in these categories.

In recent years, family-based immigration has accounted for two-thirds of all permanent immigration (see table below for numbers). estimates that more than 4 million people are stuck in family-based immigration backlogs, waiting to reunite with their family in the U.S.

Employment-based Immigration

Employment-based (EB) green cards are generally issued based on a tiered preference system.

For green cards, there are five “preference” categories (numerically capped, see table below for details), prioritizing those with professional accomplishments and ability, followed by those considered to be “special immigrants,” and investors (see our table for a full breakdown).

The annual numerical limit on employment-based immigration is 140,000 plus any unused family-based numbers from the previous year.

The employment-based immigration system also faces a sizable backlog. estimates that more than one million skilled workers and their immediate family members are stuck waiting in backlogs, with some individuals waiting decades from first filing to being eligible to adjust status.

Diversity Visa Lottery

If a country’s nationals were granted 50,000 or fewer green cards during the previous five years, they are eligible to apply for a diversity-based visa (which becomes a green card upon entrance to the U.S.). 50,000 visas are available in this category each year; in FY 2020, more than 14 million people submitted qualified applications in hopes of being selected in the lottery.

Minimum requirements include a high school education or two years of work experience within the previous five years, and successful passage of a medical exam and background check.

Green Card Annual Issuances (Pre-COVID-19)

From 2013 to 2016, the number of new LPRs annually was generally increasing, ranging from 991,000 in 2013 to nearly 1.2 million in 2016.

However, that upward trend has shifted in recent years. In 2019, 1,031,765 new LPRS were admitted, a decline of 151,740 from 2016. Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the numbers dropped even more precipitously; in FY 2021, the most recent year for which data are available, only 740,002 individuals were granted permanent resident status.

Permanent immigration (green card) categories

Below is a table describing the major permanent immigration green card categories (including annual numerical limits and the number of people granted green cards in each category for the most recently available fiscal year), followed by brief descriptions and additional information on the major categories.

a. Categories in which the number of LPR recipients exceeds the statutory annual numeric limit are largely due to timing differences between when LPR status is officially granted, and when immigrants actually arrive in the United States and are counted by DHS as green card recipients. These differences also result from the “roll-downs” of unused visa numbers from higher-priority categories. For more information, see Table 1 in CRS Report R42866, Permanent Legal Immigration to the United States: Policy Overview.
b. The Immigration and Nationality Act provides 40,040 EB-3 immigrant visas each year. However, beginning in FY 2002 that annual ceiling has been reduced by up to 5,000 each year to accommodate adjustments made under the Nicaraguan and Central American Relief Act (NACARA, Title II of P.L. 105-100). The 5,000 offset is temporary, but it is unclear for how many years it will remain in effect to handle these adjustments of status.
c. The Immigration and Nationality Act provides 55,000 diversity immigrant visas each year. However, beginning in FY1999 that annual ceiling has been reduced by up to 5,000 each year to accommodate adjustments made under the Nicaraguan and Central American Relief Act (NACARA, Title II of P.L. 105-100). The 5,000 offset is temporary, but it is unclear for how many years it will remain in effect to handle these adjustments of status.
d. For more information on these categories, see CRS Report R42866, Permanent Legal Immigration to the United States: Policy Overview.


Green card holders can generally become U.S. citizens after living in the U.S. if they:

  • Reside in the U.S. continuously for 3+ years if a marriage-based green card holder or 5+ years for other categories
  • Have “good moral character” and are at least 18 years old
  • Speak basic English and know U.S. history and civics
  • Take an oath of allegiance to the U.S.

As of 2022, about 9.2 million of the 12.9 million green card holders in the U.S. were eligible to naturalize.

Immigrants who serve in the military typically qualify for a direct, expedited path to citizenship as do the widowed spouses of U.S. citizen military veterans.

Under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, children born in the United States are automatically U.S. citizens.

Refugee, Asylum, and Humanitarian Systems

In addition to employer- and family-sponsored immigration, the United States also provides temporary and permanent immigrant options, including refugee and asylum programs, for individuals fleeing violence, persecution, natural disasters, and other dangerous situations.


Immigration law defines a refugee as someone “who is persecuted or who has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” If an individual is granted refugee status, they can be resettled in the United States and access a number of resources and benefits, including being able to apply for a green card. The United States’ commitment to welcoming refugees is enshrined in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

The refugee process generally begins when an individual seeking relief registers with the UN Refugee Agency. After initial screenings, they are referred to receiving countries based on an assessment of their vulnerability and needs. Individuals referred to the United States then begin a rigorous screening process involving interviews, biometrics, background and security checks, and medical exams. If they are approved, they will have travel arranged to bring them to the U.S., where refugee resettlement agencies will find a place for them to live and help them access financial support, employment assistance, and other provided services.

The number of refugees who can be resettled each year is limited to a ceiling set annually by the President in consultation with Congress. The Biden Administration has announced a 125,000 ceiling for FY 2023.

In FY 21, refugees from five countries comprised three-quarters of all refugee arrivals: the Democratic Republic of Congo (43%), Syria (11%), Afghanistan (8%), Ukraine (7%), and Burma (7%). The top-sending countries in FY 20 were similar, but with different proportions: Democratic Republic of Congo (24%), Burma (18%), Ukraine (16%), Afghanistan (5%), and Syria (4%).

In recent years, the United States has also implemented its own targeted refugee efforts, like the Central American Minors (CAM) Program and building in-country processing centers, to allow individuals seeking relief in the United States to apply from abroad, before making the journey to the U.S. border.


As determined by both international agreements and U.S. law, an asylum seeker is either physically present in the U.S. or seeks refuge at a U.S. land border port of entry.

Individuals can request asylum affirmatively while lawfully present in the U.S., or defensively, “as a defense against removal from the U.S.” (i.e., in immigration court during removal proceedings, or upon entering the U.S. without documentation).

75,252 defensive asylum claims with valid credible fear in FY19

Defensive asylum seekers without documentation apprehended at or within 100 miles of the border must express a fear of return to their home country; only if they can establish a “credible fear” can they appear before an immigration judge; otherwise, they are placed in expedited removal and may not appear before an immigration judge. If credible fear is established, an asylum officer refers the case to an immigration judge and the applicant may be paroled into the U.S. or detained, at ICE’s discretion.

An applicant who cannot establish a credible fear can request that the credible fear finding be reviewed by an immigration judge. If successful, the applicant can have the full asylum claim heard by a judge. If not, the applicant will be removed from the country. USCIS can rehear a claim if presented with new, compelling information.

Migrant Protections Protocols (“Remain in Mexico”)

In January 2019, DHS implemented the Migrant Protections Protocols (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, forcing certain individuals seeking asylum to wait for court dates in Mexico. An individual who presents themselves to CBP agents at a port of entry is given a date in U.S. immigration court, specifically MPP court, and turned over to Mexican authorities. The first hearing determines whether an individual or family expresses fear awaiting their asylum process in Mexico, otherwise known as a non-refoulement interview. This adds a layer of burden of proof for families and individuals before having the chance to conduct a credible fear interview in any affirmative asylum case.

This has left some 60,000 people waiting for initial hearings and determinations of their asylum cases. Additionally, many immigration courts remain partially closed by the COVID-19 pandemic, postponing thousands of cases into 2021. In February 2021, the Biden Administration announced that it would begin processing individuals in the MPP program for asylum.

52% of FY16-18 asylees are from China, Venezuela, and the Northern Triangle

New Trends in Asylum Claims

The majority of individuals granted asylum over the past decade (FY 2007 to 2016) have included individuals from China and Egypt, followed by Guatemala, Haiti, Venezuela, Iraq, Ethiopia, Iran, Colombia, and Russia.

However, the countries from which asylum seekers are fleeing have changed, with the majority of defensive applications filed in the past few years coming from asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemela, Honduras, and El Salvador, where applications have significantly increased and accounted for 61% of defensive applications in FY 2016, followed by Mexico and China.

In FY 2018, China, Venezuela, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were the top countries of nationality for those receiving asylum, accounting for approximately 53% of asylum grants.



DHS has discretionary authority to “parole” individuals into the U.S. for “urgent humanitarian purposes” (e.g., medical reasons) or “significant public benefit” (e.g., to testify in court). The “parole” is limited in duration, and can be broadly or narrowly granted case by case, depending on the administration and issuing director of the relevant agency. Parolees are eligible for work authorization.

Deferred Action

Solely as an administrative remedy, DHS can apply deferred action, exercising its discretion not to prosecute/deport individuals who are unlawfully in the U.S. The DACA policy is a type of deferred action. Factors used to grant deferred action include: likelihood for removal; sympathetic factors (such as age, hardship, time in the country, and family ties); adverse publicity for the agency if the person were to be removed because of those sympathetic factors; etc. While deferred action is limited in duration, recipients of deferred action can typically receive authorization to work in the U.S. and adjust to a lawful immigration status, providing there’s a lawful basis from which to adjust and the person was lawfully admitted.

DACA was administratively created in 2012 to provide temporary relief from removal and work authorization to eligible undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. About 800,000 people availed themselves of the policy prior to its rescission by President Trump.

Temporary Protected Status (TPS)

DHS in consultation with DOS can grant individuals in the U.S. from countries undergoing extraordinary conditions (natural disasters, civil unrest, extraordinary circumstances, etc.) TPS, or Temporary Protected Status. Congress may also provide TPS, as it has done in the past. TPS protections are valid for up to 18 months and can be renewed and extended. TPS recipients are eligible for work authorization, but not for a special green card pathway outside of other legal paths.

Source: Congressional Research Service, “Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure”

a. The arrival date represents the date from which individuals are required to have continuously resided in the United States in order to qualify for TPS and is indicated in the most recent TPS designation for that country. Unless a country is re-designated for TPS, the required arrival date does not change. A foreign national is not considered to have failed this requirement for a “brief, casual, and innocent” absence. 8 U.S.C. §1254a(c) and 8 C.F.R. §244.1.
b. The expiration date represents the end of the most recent designation period and is subject to change based on future decisions of the Secretary of DHS.
c. These data reflect the number of individuals (rounded to the nearest five by USCIS) with an approved TPS application as of March 11, 2021, who had not obtained LPR status or U.S. citizenship. The data may include individuals who have left the country or died since their last TPS approval, and do not necessarily include all nationals from the specified countries who are in the United States and are eligible for the status.
d. Because the application period just began, data are not yet available. DHS estimates that 323,000 individuals are eligible for TPS for Venezuela, and 1,600 individuals are eligible for TPS for Burma.
e. Due to legal challenges, these termination have not yet taken effect. While the designations have been terminated, DHS has extended the validity of all TPS-related documents for beneficiaries of TPS for El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Sudan through October 4, 2021.
f. On May 22, 2021 DHS Secretary Mayorkas announced an 18-month designation of TPS for Haiti. Individuals from Haiti who have continuously resided in the U.S. since May 21, 2021 will be eligible to apply. The expiration date will be 18 months following the publication of the announcement in the Federal Register. An estimated 40,000 individuals from Haiti are currently protected under TPS. These individuals will retain their protections through at least October 4, 2021, or longer if required to comply with court orders, though those individuals are also eligible to apply under the new designation as well.

Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC)

UACs are undocumented children under 18 years old who are not accompanied by a parent—or do not have a parent in the U.S.— who can provide care and physical custody. UACs are provided with certain protections during apprehension, custody, removal proceedings, and possible return to their home countries. They may not be placed in expedited removal, but rather must be granted an opportunity to have full removal proceedings before an immigration judge. The majority of UACs come from Northern Triangle countries.

Victims of Crimes (U, T)

Some temporary protections and immigration benefits are available for immigrants who are victims of crimes.

U nonimmigrant visas are granted to certain victims of crimes who, in exchange for the visa, assist law enforcement to investigate/prosecute crimes. Grantees are often victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, or trafficking. U visa issuances are limited to 10,000 each year. U visa recipients can adjust to a green card, along with their immediate relatives.

T nonimmigrant visas are granted to victims of human trafficking for four years, limited to 5,000 each year. Grantees are eligible to adjust to green cards after three years, providing they meet certain other conditions.

Border Security and Interior Enforcement

Preventing unauthorized immigration into the U.S. has been a primary objective for many policy makers over the past four decades. To help achieve this goal, lawmakers have authorized and appropriated increases in security spending, resulting in U.S. borders that are more heavily staffed and supported by deployed infrastructure and technology than ever, and is one factor in the downward trend of undetected cross-border migration


Immigration into the U.S. is managed at the border by two primary offices that make up U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) within DHS: the Office of Border Patrol (BP) between the ports of entry and the Office of Field Operations (OFO) at the ports of entry. In total, CBP oversees the almost 6,000 miles of northern and southern land and water boundaries of the continental U.S., including 328 ports of entry.

Enforcement of the nation’s immigration, trade, and customs laws are carried out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Violations of immigration law can carry both civil and criminal penalties, and prevent the individual’s ability to immigrate to the U.S. in the future.


CBP screens and admits individuals into the United States, apprehends unauthorized entrants, and processes claims from individuals seeking asylum. Even if somebody is granted a visa from abroad, CBP serves as the gatekeeper to the U.S. CBP oversees the Border Patrol, which monitors the northern and southern borders for unauthorized entry and illegal activity, facilitates the lawful movement of people and goods, and provides humanitarian support for people in need.

A visa provides permission to travel to the U.S.; CBP verifies that the visa holder is eligible to enter the U.S., conducts another set of background checks, and scrutinizes any possible inadmissibilities.

In FY 2020, CBP reported 400,651 “encounters” along the southwest border, including 203,608 apprehensions of unauthorized entrants but not including “inadmissibles” (individuals who present at a port of entry but are determined to be ineligible to enter the U.S.).

The combination of technology, existing infrastructure, natural barriers, and the more than 16,500 Border Patrol Agents at the southwest border means that it is extremely difficult to enter the country undetected; according to DHS, the estimated number of undetected unlawful entries fell 95% from FY 2006 to FY 2018, and estimates the probability of detection to be greater than 90%.


Arrests and Prosecution in the Interior of the U.S.

ICE arrests and detains unauthorized immigrants present in the U.S. ICE also works with USCIS and DOL to investigate immigration fraud and ensure that employers are complying with applicable laws. Outside of immigration enforcement, ICE investigates threats to national and public safety like drug trafficking, child exploitation, and cyberattacks through the Homeland Security Investigations unit.

The President has the authority to set enforcement priorities. In the second term of the Obama Administration, enforcement resources were prioritized on serious threats to national and public security, substantially reducing deportations, while the Trump Administration eliminated enforcement prioritization and focused on arresting and removing as many undocumented individuals as possible. On taking office, President Joe Biden announced that enforcement would again be prioritized on national security, border security, and public safety threats.

Ramp-up in Detention

The Trump Administration prioritized increases to interior enforcement and detention with three executive orders in January 2017. One order (13767) directed DHS to “allocate all legally available resources to immediately construct, operate, control, or establish contracts to construct, operate, or control facilities to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico,” to use detention wherever legal permissible, and to eliminate use of alternatives to detention. On taking office, President Biden rescinded those orders.

$3.1 billion for expanded detention capacity of 60,000 detention beds, 5,000 of which for family units; and $603.5 million for transportation and removal costs.

Deportation Process

Generally, after DHS charges an individual, they appear before an immigration court judge (a civil judicial proceeding, so no government lawyer is provided) for a determination over the individual’s removability. There are some forms of relief, such as asylum, cancellation of removal, and deferred action, and decisions can be appealed.

Those who entered unlawfully (including those who committed fraud/misrepresentation to enter the U.S.) may be subject to “expedited removal,” a fast-tracked removal process, unless they establish a “credible fear” of being returned to their home country. They generally cannot avail themselves of the right to appeal or other possible relief.

Those who are removed are generally barred from re-entering the U.S. for at least five years. Re-entering the U.S. after removal can result in a bar of 20 years and can be criminally penalized. Some choose “voluntary departure,” which would exempt them from certain penalties.


E-Verify is a web-based system managed by DHS’ USCIS for employers to determine if potential hires are legally authorized to work in the United States. E-Verify checks information provided by employees against records maintained by the Social Security Administration (SSA) and DHS.

The first iteration of E-Verify was created in 1996 as a pilot program under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act; the program was then brought online and formalized in the late 2000s.

Participation in E-Verify is voluntary for most employers; however, some employers, including those fulfilling some federal contracts or those hiring students participating in STEM OPT, are required by law to use E-Verify. Additionally, 22 states have mandated E-Verify participation for some subset of employers, with nine requiring participation for all employers. More than 750,000 employers are currently enrolled in E-Verify.

The Path Forward

Policy makers have the opportunity to take a commonsense approach to immigration that keeps families safe and together, grows our economy, supports our recovery, and contributes to a robust workforce.


Broad legislative reform to establish a humane and orderly immigration system that benefits all Americans is critical and urgent. This will require compromise and collaboration from all sides. This may take the form of a single bill, or a series of complementary bills; regardless of the legislative vehicle, the reform effort must be broad and deep, touching multiple aspects of the immigration system. Below, we identify three key areas of reform, based on the pillars of previous legislative proposals, that immigration reform efforts should prioritize.


An Immigration System to Meet Our Needs

Improving immigration avenues and increasing immigration is essential to meet the United States’ economic and demographic needs. As our population ages, immigration is critical to increase the U.S. working age population. The size, age, and skills mix of our population—all of which are greatly impacted by immigration—will help determine the U.S.’ ability to grow an economy that creates jobs and stays competitive. Congress must prioritize legislation that improves and expands immigration avenues.

U.S. Future Immigration Highly Impacts U.S.' Future Global Economic Standing

Country GDP, by selected U.S. immigration scenario
2050 GDP




  1. Very High Immigration
    (2.4 million immigrants annually)
  2. High Immigration
    (1.8 million immigrants annually)
  3. Recent Immigration
    (1.2 million immigrants annually)
  4. Low Immigration
    (0.6 million immigrants annually)
  5. Zero Immigration
    (no immigration)
  1. Very High
  2. High
  3. Recent
  4. Low
  5. Zero
Very High Immigration (2.4 million immigrants annually)
High Immigration (1.8 million immigrants annually)
Recent Immigration (1.2 million immigrants annually)
Low Immigration (0.6 million immigrants annually)
Zero Immigration (no immigration)
Sources: U.S.: George Mason University projections, based on ACS 2018 augmented data. India, China: PwC Global “The World in 2050” report, based on 2016 estimates.
Note: U.S. projections are constant 2018 dollars. India and China projections are based on constant 2016 dollars. GDP in MER is gross domestic product as value of goods and services at market exchange rates. GDP in PPP is gross domestic product at purchasing power parity adjusting for standards of living across countries.
Read the full report at

The U.S. will need to welcome the best and brightest from around the world to strengthen our global competitiveness while continuing to encourage family reunification; that means creating green card pathways for international graduates educated in the U.S. and skilled STEM professionals from around the globe. Future reforms must also address longstanding structural issues, like green card backlogs and country-specific caps, that keep immigrants waiting decades for the certainty of a green card and put their families at risk of separation in the meantime. And employment-based immigration programs, including nonimmigrant visa programs like H-1B, H-2A, and H-2B, must be expanded and modernized to respond to economic need.

Reform must also ensure that immigrants are able to continue contributing to businesses in essential industries, which have long relied on the contributions of immigrants, are able to thrive, and prepare to meet challenges like those we have faced through the COVID-19 pandemic. This should include an essential worker visa that rewards their service with expedited immigration options.

An estimated 10.6 million undocumented immigrants are living and working in the U.S. today.

Establishing a Pathway to Citizenship for Undocumented Immigrants

An estimated 10.6 million undocumented immigrants are living and working in the U.S. Most have no legal option to adjust their status. Immigration reform must establish a pathway for these individuals to pursue citizenship.

This should include Dreamers, individuals protected by Temporary Protected Status, farmworkers, and the 5 million undocumented immigrants who are essential workers. Considering the number of Americans who live in mixed status families, legalization efforts should prioritize keeping families together.

Further reforms will be needed to revise excessively punitive policies, such as the three- and ten-year inadmissibility bars, which have contributed to the growth of the undocumented population by preventing people already in the U.S. from adjusting their status if they have remained in the U.S. without status for over six months.

Beyond Border Security

The combination of technology, existing infrastructure, natural barriers, and deployment of more than 16,000 Border Patrol agents have made the southern border more secure than ever before. DHS has 91% situational awareness across the border, and unauthorized entries are at historic lows. Since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003, the federal government has spent an estimated $333 billion on the agencies that carry out immigration enforcement, including $26 billion in FY2021 budget for ICE and CBP alone.

Moving forward, Congress must look beyond traditional “border security” to address factors that drive people to seek entry at the border in the first place. Expanding legal immigration avenues will provide reliable options for those seeking to come to the U.S., in turn removing incentives for unlawful entry and reducing the number of people seeking entry at the southern border. This includes addressing the root causes of migration by providing much-needed international aid (monetary and otherwise) to improve economic and security conditions in Central America, and re-establishing robust refugee and asylum programs that can help people before they arrive at a U.S. port of entry. Within the U.S., DHS should maintain enforcement priorities so that limited law enforcement resources are targeted on serious national security threats.