on immigration Research
(Update: On Tuesday, May 16, the Senate passed
Sen. Jeff Bingaman's (D-NM) amendment to S. 2611 that significantly
reduced the number of legal immigrants who could enter under the
bill's "guest worker" program. As a result of this change, our
estimate of the number of legal immigrants who would enter the
country or would gain legal status under S. 2611 falls from 103
million to around 66 million over the next 20 years.)
If enacted, the
Comprehensive immigration Reform Act (CIRA, S.2611) would be the
most dramatic change in immigration law in 80 years, allowing an
estimated 103 million persons to legally immigrate to the U.S. over
the next 20 years-fully one-third of the current population of the
Much attention has
been given to the fact that the bill grants amnesty to some 10
million illegal immigrants. Little or no attention has been given
to the fact that the bill would quintuple the rate of legal
immigration into the United States, raising, over time, the inflow
of legal immigrants from around one million per year to over five
million per year. The impact of this increase in legal immigration
dwarfs the magnitude of the amnesty provisions.
In contrast to the
103 million immigrants permitted under CIRA, current law allows 19
million legal immigrants over the next twenty years. Relative to
current law, then, CIRA would add an extra 84 million legal
immigrants to the nation's population.
The figure of 103
million legal immigrants is a reasonable estimate of the actual
immigration inflow under the bill and not the maximum number that
would be legally permitted to enter. The maximum number that could
legally enter would be almost 200 million over twenty years-over
180 million more legal immigrants than current law permits.
To understand the
provisions of CIRA, largely based on a compromise by Senators Chuck
Hagel (R-Nebraska) and Mel Martinez (R-Florida), it is useful to
distinguish between the three legal statuses that a legal immigrant
Status: Persons in this category enter the U.S. temporarily and
are required to leave after a period of time.
Near-Permanent, Convertible Status: Persons in this category
enter the U.S. and are given the opportunity to "adjust" or convert
to legal permanent residence after a few years.
Permanent Residence (LPR): Persons in this category have the
right to remain in the United States for their entire lives. After
five years, they have the right to naturalize and become citizens.
As naturalized citizens, they have the constitutional rights to
vote and to receive any government benefits given to native-born
A key feature of
CIRA is that most immigrants identified as "temporary" are, in
fact, given convertible status with a virtually unrestricted
opportunity to become legal permanent residents and then
feature of both CIRA and existing immigration law is that
immigrants in convertible or LPR status have the right to bring
spouses and minor children into the country. Spouses and dependent
children will be granted permanent residence along with the primary
immigrant and may also become citizens. In addition, after
naturalizing, an immigrant has the right to bring his parents into
the U.S. as permanent residents with the opportunity for
citizenship. There are no numeric limits on the number of spouses,
dependent children, and parents of naturalized citizens that may be
brought into the country. Additionally, the siblings and adult
children (along with their families) of naturalized citizens and
the adult children (and their families) of legal permanent
residents are given preference in future admission but are subject
to numeric caps.
Key Provisions of
provisions of CIRA would result in an explosive increase in legal
Current Illegal Immigrants: CIRA offers amnesty and citizenship
to 85 percent of the nation's current 11.9 million illegal
immigrants. Under the plan, illegal immigrants who have been in the
U.S. for five years or more (60 percent of illegals) would be
granted immediate amnesty. Illegal immigrants who have been in the
country between two and five years (25 percent of illegals) could
travel to one of 16 "ports of entry," where they would receive
amnesty and lawful work permits.
In total, the bill would grant amnesty to 85 percent of the current
illegal immigrant population, or some 10 million individuals.
After receiving amnesty, illegal
immigrants would spend six years in a provisional status before
attaining LPR status. After five years in LPR status, they would
have the opportunity to become naturalized citizens and vote in
U.S. elections. As well, the spouses and dependent children of
current illegal immigrants would have the right to enter the U.S.
and become citizens.
There would be no numeric limit on the number of illegal
immigrants, spouses, and dependents receiving LPR status; under the
amnesty provision, such individuals would not be counted against
any other cap or limit in immigration law.
"Temporary Guest Worker" Program: CIRA creates an entirely new
"temporary guest worker" (H-2C) program. There is nothing temporary
about this program; nearly all "guest workers" would have the right
to become permanent residents and then citizens.
could enter the U.S. as guest workers if they have a job offer from
a U.S. employer. In practical terms, U.S. companies would recruit
foreign workers to enter the guest worker program and immigrate to
the U.S. Most likely, intermediate employment firms would
specialize in recruiting foreign labor for U.S. employers.
would be allowed to remain in the U.S. for six years.
However, in the fourth year, the guest worker could ask for LPR
status and would receive it if he has learned English or is
enrolled in an English class.
There are no numeric limits on the number of guest workers who
could receive LPR status. Upon receiving LPR status, the guest
worker could remain in the country permanently. He could become a
U.S. citizen and vote in U.S. elections after just five more
The spouses and
minor children of guest workers would also be permitted to
immigrate to the U.S.
When guest workers petition for LPR status, their spouses and
children would receive it as well. Five years after obtaining LPR
status, these spouses could become naturalized citizens. The bill
sets no limit on the number of spouses and children who could
immigrate under the guest worker program. After workers and their
spouses have obtained citizenship, they would be able to bring in
their parents as legal permanent residents.
The bill does
provide numeric limits on the number of guest workers who can enter
the country each year, but the number starts high and then grows
exponentially. In the first year, 325,000 H-2C visas would be given
out, but if employer demand for guest workers is high, that number
could be boosted by an extra 65,000 in the next year. If employer
demand for H-2C workers continues to be high, the number of H-2C
visas could be raised by up to 20 percent in each subsequent
The 20 percent
exponential escalator provision allows the number of H-2C
immigrants to climb steeply in future years. If the H-2C cap were
increased by 20 percent each year, within twenty years the annual
inflow of workers would reach 12 million. At this 20 percent growth
rate, a total of 70 million guest workers would enter the U.S. over
the next two decades and none would be required to leave. While it
is unlikely that so many workers would enter, the program does have
the potential to bring ten of millions of immigrants to the
The "guest worker"
program, then, is an open door program, based on the demands of
U.S. business, that would allow an almost unlimited number of
workers and dependents to enter the U.S. from anywhere in world and
become citizens. It is essentially an "open border" provision.
Permanent Visas for Siblings, Adult Children, and their
Families: The permanent entry of non-immediate relatives-such
as brothers, sisters, and adult children-is currently subject to a
cap of 480,000 per year minus the number of immediate relatives
(the parents, spouses, and minor children of U.S. citizens)
admitted in the prior year. CIRA eliminates the deduction for
immediate relatives from the cap.
This effectively increases the number of non-immediate relatives
who could attain LPR status by 254,000 per year.
Permanent Employment Visas: The U.S. currently issues around
140,000 employment-based visas each year. Under CIRA, the U.S.
would issue 450,000 employment-based green cards per year between
2007 and 2016.
After 2016, the number would fall to 290,000 per year.
Under current law, LPR visas going to the spouses and children of
workers with employment-based visas are counted against the cap.
Under CIRA, these spouses and children would be removed from the
cap and given legal permanent residence without numeric limits.
Historically, 1.2 dependent relatives have entered the U.S. for
each worker under employment-based immigration programs.
This means that some 990,000 persons per year would be granted LPR
status until 2016 and, after that, 638,000 per year.
immigration Under CIRA
Most provisions of
CIRA are straightforward; in many categories, the number of future
immigrants allowed is either directly stated or can be easily
calculated from the law's provisions. In some areas, however, the
law's impact is uncertain. To estimate future legal immigration
under the bill, three assumptions have been used in this paper:
- Spouses and
children of workers: Dependent spouses and children represent a
major component of current immigration. In the current
employment-based visa program, 1.2 dependents enter for each
This paper assumes this ratio will continue in the employment-based
program and will also apply to those entering under the new guest
worker program. This is a conservative assumption: guest workers
are likely to have lower education levels and thus to have larger
families. Finally, many current illegal immigrants who would
receive amnesty under the bill already have families in the U.S.;
therefore the ratio of incoming spouses and children to amnesty
recipients is assumed to be only 0.6, or half the ratio of the
- Parents of
naturalized citizens: Parents of naturalized citizens currently
make up eight percent of all new legal immigrants. This paper
assumes that half of all adult immigrants will naturalize after
five years of LPR status and that 30 percent of the parents of
these naturalized citizens will immigrate in the three years after
their children's naturalization.
- Growth in the
guest worker program: The number of immigrants in the guest
worker program will be driven by employer demand. The bill allows
the number of H-2C visas to increase by 20 percent per year; this
level of growth would result in an extraordinary 60 million guest
workers in the U.S. over the next twenty years. This paper assumes
that the number of immigrants in the guest worker program would
increase at a more moderate rate of 10 percent per year.
Alternative estimates for 20 percent growth and zero growth in the
program are also presented.
A Flood of legal
immigrants could enter the country or attain lawful status within
the country through eight channels. In each channel, immigrants
would be granted permanent residence and the right to become
citizens. The first channel represents immigrants who would have
entered under current law; the second channel represents illegal
immigrants who are currently in the country and would be given
legal permanent residence under the bill. The other six channels
represent new inflows of legal immigrants that would occur as a
result of the bill. The total number of new legal immigrants over a
twenty year period would be as follows: (See and .)
- Visas under
current law: Roughly 950,000 persons receive permanent
residence visas under current law each year. Over 20 years, the
inflow of immigrants through this channel would be 19 million. This
represents the status quo under existing law.
The bill would grant amnesty to roughly 10 million illegal
immigrants. These individuals are currently living in the U.S.;
amnesty would allow them to remain legally and to become U.S.
family chain migration: The number of family-sponsored visas
for secondary family members, such as adult brothers and sisters,
is currently limited to 480,000 per year minus the number of visas
given to immediate family members (spouses, minor children, and
parents of U.S. citizens). The bill changes the law so that the
total quota on secondary family members would be 480,000 without
deductions for immediate family members. The net increase in the
number of immigrants under this provision would be around 254,000
per year, or 5.1 million over 20 years.
Employment-based green cards: The bill would increase the
number of employment-based visas from 140,000 to 450,000 per year.
For the first time, it would also exempt the spouses and children
of workers from the cap. Total annual immigration under this
provision is likely to be 450,000 workers plus 540,000 family
members annually. The net increase above current law over 20 years
would be around 13.5 million persons.
- The guest
worker (H-2C) program: CIRA would allow 325,000 persons to
participate in the guest worker program in the first year. This
number could rise by 65,000 in the next year and then by 20 percent
per year. Assuming 10 percent annual growth in the annual number of
guest workers entering the country (well below the bill's maximum),
the total inflow of workers under this program would be 20 million
over 20 years.
- Spouses and
children of guest workers: Guest workers could bring their
spouses and children to the U.S. as permanent residents; the added
number of entrants would be 24 million over 20 years.
- Spouses and
children of illegal immigrants given amnesty: Illegal
immigrants who received amnesty could bring their spouses and
children into the U.S. as legal permanent residents with the
opportunity for full citizenship. The number of spouses and
children who would enter the U.S. as a result of amnesty would be
at least six million.
- Parents of
naturalized citizens. The bill would substantially increase the
number of naturalized citizens. Naturalized citizens would have an
unlimited right to bring their parents into the U.S. as legal
permanent residents. Over twenty years, the number of parents who
would enter the U.S. as permanent legal residents as a result of
CIRA would be around five million.
Overall, the bill
would allow some 103 million persons to legally immigrate over the
next twenty years. This is roughly one-third of the current
population of the United States. All of these new entrants would be
permanent residents and would have the right to become citizens.
This would be a 84 million person net increase over current
legal Flow Compared
to Illegal immigration
All of the
immigration discussed to this point would be legal immigration. If
illegal immigration continued after enactment of S.2611, the inflow
of immigrants would be even greater. Although illegal immigration
is considered a major problem, the proposed legal immigration under
CIRA would dwarf it numerically. The net inflow of illegal
immigrants into the U.S. population is around 700,000 per year.
legal immigration under CIRA would exceed five million per year,
seven times the rate of the current illegal immigration flow.
Annual legal and illegal immigration together now equals about 1.7
million; future legal immigration alone under CIRA would be three
times this amount.
The figure of 103
million new legal immigrants is based on the assumption that
immigration under the guest worker program would grow at 10 percent
per year. If guest-worker immigration grows at the maximum rate
permitted by the bill, 20 percent per year, the total number of new
immigrants coming to the U.S. over the next twenty years would be
193 million. On the other hand, if immigration under the H-2C
program did not increase at all for two decades but remained fixed
at the initial level of 325,000 per year, total legal immigration
under CIRA would be 72 million over twenty years, or more than
three times the level that would occur under current law. (See .)
The tables in the
Appendix show annual inflows of total legal immigrants in each of
the eight channels mentioned above over the next twenty years. The
tables show the estimated yearly rate of immigration under three
scenarios for the H-2C program: zero growth, ten percent growth,
and twenty percent growth.
Dwarfing the Great
Between 1870 and
1920, the U.S. experienced a massive flow of immigration known as
the "great migration". During this period, foreign born persons
hovered between 13 and 15 percent of the population.In
1924, Congress passed major legislation greatly reducing future
immigration. By 1970, foreign born persons had fallen to 5 percent
of the population.
In the last three
decades, immigration has increased sharply. The foreign born now
comprise around 12 percent of the population, approaching the
levels of the early 1900's. However, if CIRA were enacted, and 100
million new immigrants entered the country over the next twenty
years, foreign born persons would rise to over one quarter of the
U.S. population. There
is no precedent for that level of immigration at any time in U.S.
If enacted, CIRA
would be the most dramatic change in immigration law in 80 years.
In its overall impact on the nation, the bill would rival other
historic milestones, such as the creation of Social Security or
The bill would
give amnesty to 10 million illegal immigrants and quintuple the
rate of legal immigration into the U.S. Under the bill, the annual
inflow of immigrants with the option of becoming legal permanent
residents would rise from the current level of one million per year
to more than five million per year. Within a few years, the annual
inflow of new immigrants would exceed one percent of the current
U.S. population. This would be the highest immigration rate in U.S.
Within 20 years,
some 103 million new immigrants would enter the U.S. This number is
about one-third of the current U.S. population. All of these
immigrants would be permanent residents with the right to become
citizens and vote in U.S. elections. CIRA would transform the
United States socially, economically, and politically. Within two
decades, the character of the nation would differ dramatically from
what exists today.
Rector is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies at
The Heritage Foundation.
Appendix and Tables