February 12, 1997
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Immigration: Reasons for Growth, 1981-1995
Joyce C. Vialet
Specialist in Immigration Policy
Education and Public Welfare Division
Legal immigration to the United States has increased sharply in recent years, and
shows no signs of slowing down. The question of why immigration has grown so rapidly
and the implications of this growth for the future are expected to be issues in the 105th
Congress. Primarily because of legislation enacted in 1980 and 1986, the numerical
restrictions of the basic family and employment-based immigration preference system
became less significant. The growth in legal immigration during the past 15 years came
in three groups admitted outside these numerical limits -- legalized aliens, refugees, and
numerically exempt immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. For example, about 2.8 million
illegal or undocumented aliens were "legalized" between 1981 and 1995.
Figure 1. Legal Immigration by Categories
More than half the foreign
born currently in the U.S. entered
between 1980 and 1994.1 The
composition and level of legal
immigration were legislative issues
during the 104th Congress, and are
likely to continue to be of interest
this Congress. This report explores
the reasons for the recent increase,
and briefly examines the outlook
for the future.
Total 6.4 million
Total 12.6 million
CRS analysis of INS data.
According to Immigration
and Naturalization Service (INS)
data presented in figure 1,
immigration almost doubled during the 15-year period 1981-1995 compared to the
Hansen, Kristin A., and Amara Bachu. The Foreign Born Population. Current Population
Reports P20-186. U.S. Census Bureau, Aug. 1995. p. 2.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
previous 15 years2. The reason for this increase is also apparent in figure 1. During the
past 15 years, immigrant admissions under the basic immigration system, consisting of
preference immigrants and immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, has been generously
augmented by legalized aliens and refugees. Together they accounted for 35% of total
immigration during 1981-1995, the same as preference immigration. In contrast,
immigrants entering under the preference system and related numerical limits3 accounted
for 64% of total immigration during the 15-year period 1966-1980.
As figure 2 illustrates, the
decline in preference immigration Figure 2. Immigration Trends, FY1966 - FY1995
as a percentage of total legal
immigration over the past 30 years
was due less to a decrease in
preference immigration than to an
increase in other components of
legal immigration. Preference
comparatively stable during the
period, ranging between 250,000
and 350,000. About 2.8 million
illegal or undocumented aliens CRS analysis of INS data.
were "legalized." Admissions of
immediate relatives of U.S.
citizens went from 39,231 in FY1966 to 220,360 in FY1995, increasing by an annual
average of 6.7% over the 30-year period. Refugees increased from 718,000 in 1966-1980
to 1.6 million during 1981-1995, after enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980.
Legislative Priorities and Immigration Growth, 1981-1995
The principal reasons for the growth in legal immigration during the past 15 years
have to do with congressional priorities of the 1980s as reflected in three major
enactments. The first two of the three major immigration laws enacted between 1980 and
1990 focused on the problems of refugees and illegal immigration. While some Members
of Congress supported a reduction of legal immigration during the 1980s, this was not the
prevailing view. At that time the number of legal immigrants was not generally seen as a
problem. Both the 1980 Refugee Act and the legalization programs authorized by the
Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986 substantially increased the levels of
legal immigration. More specifically:
Prompted by the large number of refugees seeking admission after the Vietnam
War, Congress enacted the Refugee Act of 1980 which established a formal
system of refugee admissions and resettlement. The 1.6 million refugees
Immigration data include aliens admitted in, or adjusting to, legal permanent resident status.
The preference system was not extended to the Western Hemisphere until 1976, and the Eastern
and Western Hemisphere ceilings. From 1968-1978, Western Hemisphere immigration was subject
to an overall ceiling of 120,000, and Eastern Hemisphere immigration was subject to a ceiling of
170,000, in both cases not including immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.
admitted since then have been primarily from Southeast Asia and the Soviet
Union, reflecting the long aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Cold War.
The temporary legalization programs established by IRCA in 1986 accounted
for 2.8 million admissions between 1989 and 1995 (including "family unity"
numbers for spouses and children of legalized aliens provided by the 1990 Act).
The Immigration Act of 1990 further raised the level of legal immigration. In his
signing statement of November 29, 1990, President George Bush observed that it
"provides for a significant increase in the overall number of immigrants permitted to enter
the United States each year." While the Immigration Act of 1990 dealt directly with legal
immigration, it has had considerably less impact on immigration levels than the 1980 and
1986 Acts. It increased the ceiling on employment-based preference immigration, with the
provision that unused employment visas would be made available the following year for
family preference immigration.
The net result of the 1980 and 1986 enactments has been that the limits of the formal
preference system on the number and types of legal immigrants became less significant
during the last 15 years. Alternatives and exceptions to the preference system -legalization programs for illegal aliens, refugee adjustments to immigrant status, and
provisions for entry of the immediate family members of U.S. citizens outside the
numerical limits -- increasingly became the predominant ways immigrants entered the
Components of Legal Immigration, 1981-1995
The major components of recent legal immigration have been preference immigrants,
legalized aliens, immediate relative of U.S. citizens, and refugees. They are discussed
below, and INS data on their admissions are summarized in table 1 and figure 3.
Preference Immigration. The current numerically restricted preference system has
evolved directly from legislation enacted in 1965. At that time Congress repealed the
national origins quota system, which had regulated immigration to the U.S. since the
1920s. It replaced the quota system, which was heavily weighted to favor immigrants
from northern and western European countries, with a "preference system" which allotted
immigrant visas on the basis of family relationships and needed skills, and established
numerical ceilings limiting the number of immigrants who qualified for these categories.
The preference system and related numerical limits, along with geographic ceilings, were
intended to regulate the number and types of aliens entering as legal immigrants.
Preference immigration is currently made up of family-based and employment-based
immigrants. The 4.3 million "preference" immigrants for 1981-1995 shown in table 1 and
reflected in figure 3 include more than 3.2 million family-based immigrants and
approximately 1 million employment-based immigrants. Family preference immigration
accounted for one-quarter of total immigration during 1981-1995. Family preference
immigration remained at essentially the same level during the 15-year period because the
overall statutory limit remained more or less the same. In order of priority, the family
preference categories are (1) unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens, (2) spouses and
children of immigrants, (3) married adult children of U.S. citizens, and (4) siblings of adult
Employment-based preference immigration accounted for less than 10% of total
immigration during 1981-1995. It more than doubled beginning in 1992, reflecting a
statutory increase from 54,000 to 140,000 visas allocated to it annually under the
Immigration Act of 1990. In part because the 1990 Act increased the skill level
requirements for employment-based visas, actual admissions have not reached the ceiling,
with the result that unused visas have been made available the following year for family
preference immigrants. This increase in employment visas accounts for the fact that
preference immigration has exceeded 300,000 since 1992 (see figure 3)4.
Refugees. Refugees are admitted under the INA, as amended by the Refugee Act of
1980, and accounted for 1.6 million, or 13%, of total immigrant admissions in the last 15
years. Refugee admissions are governed by different criteria and numerical limits than
immigrant admissions. Refugee status requires a finding of persecution or a well-founded
fear of persecution in situations of "special humanitarian concern" to the United States.
Refugees are processed and admitted from abroad. Provision is also made in the INA for
the granting of asylum on a case-by-case basis to aliens who are physically present in the
United States or at a land border or port of entry and who meet the definition of "refugee."
Refugees change to immigrant status after 1 year's residence in the United States, and
are counted as immigrants at that time. However, it is their admission rather than
adjustment to immigrant status which is subject to numerical limits. The total annual
number of refugee admissions and the geographical allocation of these numbers among
refugee groups are determined at the start of each fiscal year by the President after
consultation with the Congress. While refugee admissions are always subject to sudden
change, the current trend is downward. In FY1996, refugee admissions fell below 100,000
for the first time in the 1990s. The FY1997 refugee admissions ceiling is 78,000, with the
largest allocation for Europe (48,000), primarily the former Soviet Union and Eastern
Europe. The 10,000 allocation for East Asia is the smallest in 30 years.
Legalized Aliens. The two temporary legalization programs established by IRCA in
1986 accounted for 2.8 million admissions between 1989 and 1995 (including "transition
visa numbers” for spouses and children of legalized aliens provided by the 1990 Act). The
first of these programs, the so-called "pre-1982" legalization program, provided for
regularizing the status of otherwise eligible illegal aliens who had resided in the United
States continuously since before January 1, 1982. This controversial program was justified
both as a humane way to deal with undocumented aliens who had established strong ties
in the U.S., and as the political tradeoff necessary to pass employer sanctions for the
knowing employment of illegal aliens, IRCA's major provision for controlling illegal
immigration. The second and equally controversial legalization program for “special
agricultural workers” (SAWs) was created to assure agricultural producers that employer
sanctions would not adversely affect their seasonal workforce.
INS counted pre-1982 and SAW legalized aliens as immigrants when they adjusted
to permanent resident status, in the second phase of the 2-step legalization process. Thus,
1989 is the first year legalized aliens show up as immigrants in figures 1-3 and table 1. Of
For further information on the preference system and related numerical limits, see. Immigration:
Numerical limits on Permanent Admissions, by Joyce C. Vialet and Molly R. Forman. CRS
Report 94-146 EPW, updated July 23, 1996. 6 p.
Table 1. Legal Immigration by Category, FY1981 - FY1995
Percent of totals
CRS analysis of INS data
the legalized aliens shown as immigrants in 1989, 479,000 actually had to have been in the
United States since 1981 in the case of pre-1982 legalized aliens, and since 1985 in the case
of SAWs. The 1992-1994 figures also include 141,690 legalized aliens's spouses and
minor children admitted under a 3-year program created by the Immigration Act of 1990.
Both the pre-1982
Figure 3. Annual Immigration, FY1981 - FY1995
and SAW legalization
programs ended in the
1980s. However, the
admitted under them
will continue to affect
immigration for some
time to come, both in
terms of backlogs and
overall numbers. The
January 1995 backlog
for the family "second
preference" category -the spouses and children
of immigrants -- was 1.1
CRS analysis of INS data.
million, 80% of which
was made up of spouses
and children of legalized
aliens. Legalized aliens naturalizing as U.S. citizens are petitioning for entry of their
spouses and children as numerically exempt immediate relatives.
Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens. As defined by the INA, numerically exempt
“immediate relatives” are the unmarried children (under age 21) and spouses of U.S. citizens,
and the parents of U.S. citizens aged 21 and over. The unlimited admission of the spouses and
children of U.S. citizens dates back to the 1920s; the 1965 Act also granted parents of adult
U.S. citizens numerically exempt immediate relative status. The growth in admissions of
immediate relatives was a major reason for the increase in legal immigration between 19811994, when they totaled 3.2 million compared to 1.4 million in 1966-1980.
Implications for the Future
Some predictions about the probable future growth, under present law, of legal
immigration and its major components can be made. The likely direction of legal
immigration is upward, fueled primarily by an increase in the numerically unrestricted
immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, as discussed below. Regarding the other major
components, preference immigration is likely to remain above 300,000 because of the
increase in employment-based visa numbers. It will almost certainly exceed 400,000 in
FY1996 because of INS completion of cases filed in FY1995, but this is likely to be an
anomaly. Preference immigration is generally limited to approximately 350,000 by the
overall numerical restrictions. The FY1997 refugee ceiling of 78,000 is the lowest since
enactment of the Refugee Act in 1980. By definition, however, refugee flows are
unpredictable. The processing of legalized aliens under the temporary programs created
by IRCA in 1986 has been completed. However, the admission of their family members is
still in its initial stages. As noted above, the admission of family members under the
preference system is subject to numerical limits, resulting in long backlogs rather than large
numbers of immigrants, but this is not the case with immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.
The greatest increase in the foreseeable future is likely to be in the immediate relative
category, assuming the naturalization of many of the large number of legalized aliens and,
to a much lesser extent, refugees admitted under legislation enacted in the 1980s. The echo
effect of this category is apparent in the steady increase in immigrants entering as
immediate relatives of U.S. citizens over the past 30 years (see figure 2). The provisions
for entry of the immediate family members of U.S. citizens apply to all newly naturalized
immigrants -- whether they arrived under the preference system, as refugees, or as legalized
aliens — as well as to native born citizens. The increase in the number of immigrants over
recent years has amplified the impact of the exemption of immediate relatives from
numerical restrictions, and is likely to continue to do so. Determining the nature and extent
of this connection is difficult because INS has not included naturalization data in its records
on individual immigrants, but the large and increasing numbers of immigrants entering as
immediate relatives of U.S. citizens make it clear that such a process is at work.
The increase in immediate relatives of U.S. citizens may be less than expected,
however, because of new provisions in the 1996 welfare and immigration acts. The INA
now requires all immediate relatives and family preference immigrants to have affidavits of
support signed by either the family member petitioning for the immigrant or by the
petitioner in combination with another individual. One of them must demonstrate an income
of 125% above the poverty level (including support of the sponsored immigrant). Since
legalized aliens tend to be comparatively low-skilled and low-paid, this requirement may
have a significant impact on their ability to petition for their relatives.