The immigrant population in the United States is very diverse, representing nearly every country in the world. Every year, millions of people move to the U.S., making it the country with the most immigrants in the world. Because of this, immigration features heavily in public and political conversations in the United States. In this article, you can learn about the current state of immigration in the United States and get some answers to some of the most popular questions about immigration today.
Written by Jonathan Petts.
Written February 16, 2022
What is the current state of immigration in the United States?
Immigration is a polarizing issue in American politics. The Trump administration spent its four years in the White House rolling back immigration protections and ordering family separations.
President Biden has promised to reverse Mr. Trump's immigration policies and protect Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) recipients. So far, he signed an Executive Order in the first few days of his administration, reinstating the DACA program to full operation. In Congress, the House voted in March 2021 to pass the DREAM Act, and the Senate has yet to vote on the bill.
Millions of documented and undocumented immigrants live in the U.S. and they will be impacted by the decisions that U.S. lawmakers take regarding immigration reform.
How many immigrants come to the U.S. each year?
Over one million immigrants come to the United States every year. They come from different areas worldwide and for various reasons—some to study, some to work, and some to reunite with family. Among immigrants to the U.S., the most common country of origin is Mexico. About 11.2 million immigrants come from Mexico, representing 25% of the entire U.S. immigrant population. Immigrants from all Asian countries combined account for 28% of all immigrants living in the U.S. In other words, almost as many people came here from Mexico than from all of Asia. The chart below shows the share of America's immigrant population from the top five countries of origin.
|Country of Origin||% of U.S. Immigrant Population|
Source: Pew Research Center, “Key Findings About U.S. Immigrants” available at https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/08/20/key-findings-about-u-s-immigrants/ (last accessed Dec. 23, 2020).
What is the demographic makeup of immigrants in the U.S.?
Because immigrants to the U.S. come from all over the world, they represent every gender and age bracket, speak hundreds of languages, and are racially and ethnically diverse. About half of all immigrants identify as female. In 2018, the median age of America's foreign-born population was 45.2 years—half of all immigrants were older than 45.2 years, and half were younger. By comparison, the median age of the United States' native-born population was 36.3 years. The table below breaks down the immigrant and native-born populations by age.
|Age||% of Immigrant Population||% of U.S. Born Population|
|Under age 5||Less than 1%||7%|
|Age 65 or older||16%||16%|
Source: Migration Policy Institute, “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States” (Feb. 14, 2020; last accessed Dec. 23, 2020).
After English, the next most spoken language in America is Spanish, followed by Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Arabic, and French. Most immigrants to the U.S. speak one of these languages in addition to English, while about 47% of immigrants speak little or no English. In fact, immigrants make up 81% of all non-English speakers in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau datasets, there are at least 350 languages spoken in the U.S.
In addition to widely-spoken European and East Asian languages like French and Japanese, immigrants speak hundreds of lesser-known languages. For example, as of 2013, there were:
190,685 Tamil speakers
20,590 Irish Gaelic speakers
32,900 Patois speakers.
With some languages, most of the people who speak them don’t speak English. For example, 60% of Vietnamese speakers, 71% of Burmese speakers, and 75% of Maya speakers aren’t proficient in English.
On the other hand, bilingual immigrants mainly speak different languages. About 56% of Spanish speakers also speak English proficiently, as do 79% of French speakers, 65% of Serbian speakers, 51% of Mandarin speakers, and 63% of Farsi speakers.
Immigrants to the U.S. are racially and ethnically diverse. About 44% of immigrants in this country identify as Hispanic or Latinx. The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey treats race and ethnicity as separate categories. For example, Latinx is an ethnicity, while White or Black are races. Most immigrants to the U.S. are White. According to the Migration Policy Institute, migrants to this country identify as the following races:
|Race||% of Foreign-Born Population|
Source: Migration Policy Institute, “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States” (Feb. 14, 2020).
What are the popular immigrant destinations in the United States?
Although the U.S. immigrant population is a very diverse group, many tend to congregate in specific states when they move to America. California is the most popular U.S. destination for immigrants. With 10.6 million immigrants, California ranks first in both the total number of immigrants and the percentage of its population who are immigrants. After California, the states with the highest immigrant populations are Texas, Florida, New York, and New Jersey. These five states account for over half of the United States's immigrant population.
|State||# of Immigrants|
|New York||4.4 million|
|New Jersey||2 million|
Source: Migration Policy Institute, “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States” (Feb. 14, 2020).
As the immigrant population grows across the U.S., it grows faster in some states than in others. From 2010 to 2018, Florida’s immigrant population grew the most (by 817,000 people) while North Dakota’s immigrant population grew at the fastest rate (115%).
Some cities are more popular than others for some groups of immigrants. For migrants from Mexico and Central American countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, the most popular destinations are Los Angeles, Houston, and Dallas. The most popular destinations for South American immigrants are New York, Miami, and Washington, D.C. For immigrants from Asia, the most common destinations are Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.
What types of jobs do immigrants do in the United States?
When immigrants settle into their destination states, those who are able to find work join the U.S. labor force. The kinds of employment they’re involved in depends largely on whether they have immigration documentation.
17% of American workers are immigrants. As shown in the table below, immigrants are more likely to be self-employed and less likely to work for the government than native-born workers. The median income for immigrant households was $60,000 per year, slightly less than the $62,000 for native-born families.
|Employment Type||Immigrant Workers||Native-Born Workers|
Source: Migration Policy Institute Data Hub (last accessed Dec. 23, 2020).
About half of foreign-born workers have become U.S. citizens through naturalization, while half are noncitizens. According to the Migration Policy Institute, as of 2018, noncitizen immigrants were more likely to be unemployed (4.7%) than citizens through naturalization (3.5%). That same year, foreign-born workers faced a lower unemployment rate (4.1%) than native-born workers (5.1%). With the COVID-19 crisis sending U.S. unemployment to record highs, these figures will likely change when new data becomes available.
The most common industries that immigrants work in are education, healthcare, and social services. The least common were information and public administration (including state and federal government and intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations).
How many people are in the U.S. on immigrant visas vs nonimmigrant visas?
There are two ways noncitizens can legally live in the United States: immigrant visas and nonimmigrant visas. An immigrant visa—also called a green card, is for migrants who want to live in the U.S. as lawful permanent residents. In other words, an immigrant visa is for someone who wants permanent residence—to stay indefinitely and without conditions.
A nonimmigrant visa, on the other hand, is temporary and for a specific purpose and duration. For example, a student visa is to attend a college or university in the United States. This section discusses both immigrant and nonimmigrant visa stats.
How many immigrants are on a green card?
Immigrants who want to live in the U.S. permanently can apply for green cards, officially called lawful permanent resident (“LPR”) status. Unlike a temporary visa holder, an LPR does not need to enroll at a university or find full time employment to stay in the United States. An LPR can live in the U.S. as long as they want. Customs and Border Patrol can only deport them for committing serious crimes. A green card is also a required step on the path to U.S. citizenship.
Almost 1.1 million immigrants became green card holders in 2018, a slight decline (3%) from the year before. In the ten years leading up to 2018, the number of new LPRs per year has ranged from 991,00 to 1.2 million. About half of all new LPRs were already living in the U.S. when they got their green cards—often as spouses, children, or parents of U.S. citizens.
However, you don’t need to live in the U.S. to get a green card. For example, if you live abroad but you’re married to a U.S. citizen, you can get a green card to come to the U.S. to be with your spouse. In 2018, there were 529,000 people got green cards from abroad, representing about 48% of the total green cards issued that year. In 2008, applicants outside the U.S. received about 41% of all new green cards, and this figure rose above 50% briefly in 2016.
You can get a green card in one of four ways: through a family member (spouse, child, etc.); through your employer (including some self-employment); as a refugee or asylum seeker; or through the Diversity Visa Lottery Program.
In 2018, 64% of all new green cards were family green cards—44% to immediate relatives like spouses and parents, and 20% to so-called “family preference” categories. USCIS issues family preference green cards to non-immediate family members of U.S. citizens. Still, unlike immediate-relative green cards, there are per-country limits on how many family preferences green cards can be issued each year.
17% of new green cards in 2018 went to refugees and asylum seekers. Another 13% were employment-based green cards. These employment-based green cards include the EB-5 visa, which allows investors who create jobs in the U.S. to move here as immigrants. Finally, about 4% of the green cards issued in 2018 were through the Diversity Visa Lottery Program. 38% of all green cards issued that year went to immigrants from the top five countries: Mexico, Cuba, mainland China, India, and the Dominican Republic.
|Country of Origin||% of Green Cards Issued in 2018|
Source: Migration Policy Institute, “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States” (Feb. 14, 2020).
Most years, tens of millions of people apply for the Diversity Visa Lottery Program. In 2018, there were 45,350 people got green cards from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. The top countries of origin for Diversity Visa Lottery immigrants were Nepal, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Albania, Ethiopia, Russia, Turkey, and Cameroon.
The Diversity Visa Lottery Program provides a total of 55,000 green cards per year. 5,000 of those green cards go to applicants under the Nicaraguan and Central America Relief Act of 1998. The remainder 50,000 go to applicants from countries that are not historically among the top countries of origin for U.S. immigrants. To apply, you must have a high school education (or equivalent). If you did not graduate high school or its equivalent, you must have worked two of the last five years in an occupation that requires at least two years of education.
How many people in the U.S. are on temporary visas?
The Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) reports that 2.3 million migrants lived in the U.S. on temporary visas, as of 2016, which marked a slight increase from the 2 million one year earlier. 1.1 million were temporary workers or families of temporary workers. Another 870,000 were here on student visas, either as international students attending U.S. schools or family members. More than half of all temporary visa-holders came from India, China, Mexico, Canada, or South Korea. 61% came from Asian countries.
DHS also reports that 42.7 million people came to the U.S. in 2016 on nonimmigrant visas. Some only entered the U.S. once, others came and left multiple times. The average nonimmigrant visa-holder entered the U.S. between one and two times. Among the 42.7 million people who got entered on temporary visas, the largest group was the 34.2 million tourists who came to the U.S., including 15 million tourists from countries in the Visa Waiver Program (“VWP”). The VWP is a program that lets nationals of certain countries, like the United Kingdom, enter the U.S. without applying for a visa in advance.
Also among the 42.7 million visitors to the U.S. were about 1 million international students (including undergraduate college students, law students, medical students, and graduate students) on F-1 Visas; 290,300 “high-skilled” workers with H-1B visas; and 81,600 seasonal workers on H-2B visas.
The Department of State issued 8.7 million nonimmigrant (temporary) visas in 2019, which was 3% fewer than the 9 million it gave in 2018. This marked the fourth consecutive year of declines, bringing the annual number of temporary visas issued to 20% below its 2015 high of 11 million.
About 75% of the 8.7 million nonimmigrant visas issued by the Department of State in 2019 were temporary business visas or tourist visas. F visa and J visa holders made up the second largest group of visa holders. An F visa is for international students and their family members. A J visa is for participants in educational exchange or job training programs. The third most common temporary visa were H visa—work visas—making up 7% of all temporary visas issued in 2019.
The Migration Policy Institute believes the Trump Administration’s immigration policies may have caused the decline in the number of temporary visas issued over the past several years. Under President Trump, the government issued several rules that banned or severely limited travel from many countries. In 2019, the U.S. denied 89% of visa applications from Libya, 87% from Iran, 78% from Yemen, and 60% from Venezuela. In addition to banning or limiting travel outright from several countries, the Trump administration also gave officials at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad more discretion to deny applications.
In addition to temporary visas, the United States also admitted 105 million Canadians and Mexicans traveling to the U.S. temporarily. Visitors not from Mexico or Canada have to fill out Form I-94 every time they enter or exit the U.S. at a port of entry. Even visitors on the VWP need to fill out Form I-94. However, citizens of Canada and Mexico—our only neighbors—are allowed to travel to the U.S. temporarily for business or pleasure without a visa and don’t need to fill out Form I-94.
To learn more about temporary visa stats, visit the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics.
How many green card applications does USCIS backlog?
Not all visa applications get processed right away. In 2020, the Department of State was still processing some applications from 1996. This happens because of the limits immigration law sets on immigration from certain countries or visa categories. As of November 1, 2019, there were 3.6 million pending applications. Most of the backlog (3.5 million) comes from family-sponsored visa applications; another 126,000 come from employer-sponsored applications.
The Department of State only processes visa applications that immigrants file from outside the United States. Applications filed in the U.S. go to USCIS, which only publishes backlog stats for employment-based visa applications. According to USCIS, 395,000 employment-based petitions were waiting for a priority date as of May 2018.
Similarly, the Department of State only publishes backlog stats for visa applications filed outside the United States, and USCIS only publishes “backlog” stats for employment-based visa applications. USCIS doesn't include family-based visa applications and other visa applications filed within the U.S. in either of these datasets. As a result, the total size of the visa application backlog is likely much higher than the stats let on.
The Migration Policy Institute explains that USCIS can backlog an application when there aren't enough available visas to be issued, even if USCIS has already decided to approve the application. While USCIS doesn’t report an official “backlog” of family green card applications, it does report how many are pending at the end of each quarter. From this data, we know that 1,858,688 Family Green Card applications were pending with USCIS at the end of March 2020.
How many immigrants in the U.S. are in refugee or asylum status?
The United States also accepts both asylum seekers and refugees. A significant difference between the two depends on location. Refugees apply for resettlement from abroad, while asylum seekers apply for asylum either in the United States or at a port of entry like Miami Seaport or JFK International Airport. An asylum seeker can apply “affirmatively,” seeking permission to enter the U.S. as an asylee, or “defensively,” seeking relief from removal.
There's a limit on how many refugees the United States will admit. Once a year, Congress and the President decide the number of refugees they will allow from each region of the world as part of the U.S. refugee resettlement program. In Fiscal Year 2020, the government decided to cap the number of refugees at 18,000, a 40% reduction from the 30,000 refugee limit in Fiscal Year 2019. (A fiscal year runs from October 1 to September 30). 84% of the 30,000 refugees admitted in 2019 came from five countries—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Ukraine, Eritrea, and Afghanistan.
In 2019, USCIS received about 84,000 affirmative asylum applications, below the 139,777 it received in 2017. More affirmative asylum applications came from Venezuelan nationals than any other country. The table below shows the top five countries that affirmative asylum seekers came from.
|Country||Affirmative Asylum Applications|
The government also received 149,779 defensive asylum applications in 2019. These come from immigrants who are in removal proceedings and immigrants who filed with the Executive Office of Immigration Review ("EOIR," pronounced "Eeyore"), which was 30% higher than the 115,074 defensive asylum applications.
Both affirmative and defensive asylum petitions are more likely to be rejected or denied than to be approved. In 2019, USCIS approved only 31% of affirmative asylum petitions and 29% of defensive asylum petitions. These approval rates represent a decline from 2016. The table below shows the falling approval rates over the past three years.
|Year||Affirmative Asylum Approval||Defensive Asylum Approval|
Immigrants applying for asylum for themselves can also apply to bring their spouses or children with them (if their children are unmarried and less than 21 years old). When this happens, the immigrant seeking asylum is called the “principal applicant”. In 2018, the United States granted asylum to 38,687 people in the United States (including principal applicants and their families) and 6,304 people outside the U.S. They were family members of principal applicants.
The number of asylum grants in 2018 was 46% higher than in 2017. The increase has more to do with affirmative asylum petitions than with defensive petitions. USCIS processed more cases in 2018 than in prior years, which led to a rise in affirmative asylum petitions granted. It granted 24,439 affirmative petitions in 2018, a 64% increase over the 15,846 it granted in 2017.
While the most petitions filed came from Venezuela, the most petitions approved came from China, which accounted for 18% of asylum grants. The table below shows the number of asylum approvals from the top five countries in 2018, and the total number of asylum petitions filed by immigrants from these countries.
|Country||Asylum Petitions Approved||Asylum Petitions Filed|
However, not all asylum petitions that get filed are approved or denied right away. Many get left pending for months or years. In late 2019, USCIS reported that 339,836 affirmative asylum petitions were pending and EOIR reported that 476,000 defensive petitions were pending.
How many unauthorized immigrants are in the United States?
Number of People Living in the United States Without Lawful Status
There are approximately 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., according to Migration Policy Institute data from 2016. Most undocumented immigrants live in California, Texas, and New York. Almost 70% are originally from Mexico and Central America, with most coming from the five countries of origin shown in the table below.
|Country of Birth||# of Undocumented Immigrants||% of Undocumented Population|
Children with Undocumented Parents
Approximately 5.1 million children live in the U.S. with an undocumented parent. 4.1 million of the children are U.S. citizens, 167,000 have some other legal immigration status, and 809,000 are undocumented. These children represent 7% of the U.S. population under the age of 18.
About 4 million undocumented immigrants have children in the U.S., according to the Migration Policy Institute. About 82% of these undocumented parents have U.S. citizen children. Deportation of these immigrants could break up their family units, leaving children without their parents.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”)
On June 15, 2012, the government announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) program. USCIS designed the DACA program to protect the Dreamers, a group of undocumented immigrants whose parents brought them to the United States as children but who have no legal status under U.S. immigration law. DACA gives eligible Dreamers a two-year grant of “deferred action.” Deferred action is an immigration benefit that protects against deportation and comes with a work permit (called an “Employment Authorization Document” or “EAD”) to work in the U.S. legally. To be eligible for DACA, you must meet these eligibility rules:
You were under the age of 39 on June 15, 2020;
You came to the United States before your 16th birthday;
You’ve continuously lived in the U.S. from June 15, 2012 until today;
You were physically present in the U.S. without lawful status on June 15, 2012;
You are physically present in the U.S. when you apply for DACA;
Either you are currently in school; you have a high school diploma or GED; or you were honorably discharged from the U.S. military; and
You have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.
The Trump administration tried to end DACA in 2017. Still, in 2020 the Supreme Court ordered the government to re-open the DACA program.
As of 2019, there were 652,880 DACA recipients in the United States. DACA beneficiaries make up 1.5% of the foreign-born population. Most DACA recipients are Hispanic/Latinx, with Mexican nationals accounting for 80% of all DACA recipients. However, DACA recipients come from over 150 countries around the world. Approximately 250,000 U.S. citizen children have a parent with DACA status.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, most DACA recipients are in California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Florida.
|State||% of DACA Recipients|
Temporary Protected Status (“TPS”)
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”), the heart of U.S. immigration law, the government can offer a humanitarian relief called Temporary Protected Status (“TPS”). The government grants TPS to foreign nationals whose home countries have undergone earthquakes, tsunamis, civil wars, or other disasters. TPS, like DACA, provides a work permit and relief from deportation. In 1990, the U.S. used TPS for the first time, granting TPS status to immigrants from El Salvador who fled the civil war there.
Today, immigrants from ten countries have TPS status, including El Salvador, Haiti, and South Sudan. As of 2018, around 417,000 immigrants had TPS status, including 252,000 from El Salvador. After El Salvador, the largest TPS recipients were from Honduras (81,000) and Haiti (56,000).
Under President Trump, the government tried to end TPS for six of the ten countries that it applies to. A federal court temporarily blocked the Trump Administration’s attempt to end TPS The Biden Administration has proposed laws to Congress to protect TPS.
What are the U.S. immigration detention statistics?
There are two agencies in charge of immigration enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”). Both are part of the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”). Along with USCIS, they make up the United States’ three-agency immigration system.
In fiscal year 2019, the Border Patrol division of CBP reported 859,501 “apprehensions” of immigrants at the United States-Mexico border. An apprehension is what CBP calls it when a border patrol officer takes one or more immigrants into custody at the border. In 2019, CBP apprehended 474,000 family units and 76,000 unaccompanied children. Once CBP apprehends an immigrant, it turns them over to ICE. ICE also takes immigrants into custody through its raids. In 2019, ICE arrested 143,099 people. It held, on average, 50,165 immigrants in detention centers.
How many immigrants become naturalized U.S. citizens?
When they have been in the United States for a while and satisfy certain eligibility requirements, some immigrants can become U.S. citizens. Every year, approximately 860,000 immigrants apply to become U.S. citizens, through a process called “naturalization.” Becoming a U.S. citizen means you can vote in American elections, USCIS can never deport you, and you can travel to wherever U.S. passports are accepted. Moreover, you can help your family members get green cards.
To apply for naturalization, you must first be a lawful permanent resident called a "green card holder." Of the 13.6 million lawful permanent residents (“LPRs”) in the United States, about 9.1 million of them are eligible to become U.S. citizens by naturalization. Since 2015, over 800,000 LPRs have applied for citizenship every year, as shown in the table below. However, that figure has remained below the 1.4 million it hit in 2007.
|Naturalization Petitions Filed||806,682||1,023,235||926,260||844,121|
More naturalized citizens come from Mexico than any other country—Mexican immigrants account for 17% of all naturalized citizens. After Mexico, the most naturalized citizens came from India, China, and the Philippines. Naturalized citizens come from over 200 countries and live in all fifty states. However, 58% of newly naturalized citizens in 2018 lived in California, Florida, New York, Texas, and New Jersey. The table below shows the number of naturalized citizens and immigrants that live in each of these five states.
|State||# of Naturalized Citizens||Total # of Immigrants|
|New York||2,596,988||4.4 million|
|New Jersey||1,193,732||2 million|
Out of the roughly 860,000 green card holders who apply for naturalization every year, USCIS approves around 23%, denies 2-3%, and leaves about 70% pending. While most of the people who naturalize are civilians, a small fraction are U.S. military members and veterans. About 4,500 military personnel naturalized in 2018.
For more info on naturalization stats, check out our article on citizenship by naturalization statistics. You can also learn more from the stats page of Migration Policy Institute and data hub or the Pew Research Center.
Where can I find more immigration stats?
If you’d like to learn more about Immigration Stats and Immigration Trends, head over to our Learning Center or check out our recent articles on immigration stats:
You can also learn more from these government and private sources:
USCIS Immigration Data and Statistics
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (“USCIS”) is the division of the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) responsible for processing and tracking immigration applications. It’s Office of Immigration Statistics publishes dozens of regular fact sheets, datasets, and reports on the number of immigrants and new arrivals, where they come from, and where they live. It also publishes the annual Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. To access USCIS immigration data, visit their website.
State Department National Visa Center (NVC) Visa Statistics
While USCIS tracks data for most immigration topics, the State Department is in charge of all immigration applications filed at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, called “consular processing.”. Using their databases from consular processing, they publish regular bulletins on immigration and visa statistics, available on their website.
Migration Policy Institute U.S. Immigration Trends
The Migration Policy Institute is a non-profit think tank that tracks immigration stats and immigration policy trends. Their U.S. Immigration Trends Data Hub offers invaluable insights into immigration in the United States. These are very useful for someone looking to learn more about Immigration in the United States.
In addition to datasets, they also frequently publish special reports, such as the recent “How Will International Migration Policy and Sustainable Development Affect Future Climate-Related Migration?” and “Managing the Pandemic and Its Aftermath: Economies, Jobs, and International Migration in the Age of COVID-19.”
They also publish reports in Spanish, including, “Construcción de un nuevo sistema migratorio regional: Redefiniendo la cooperación entre Estados Unidos con México y Centroamérica” in December, 2020.