The number of migrants who won lawful permanent residence in the United States dropped sharply in 2020, impacted by a pandemic that locked down both those who would enter the country and slowed the work of American officials who process their requests.
Just over 700,000 new people won lawful residence in the last fiscal year, according to an annual report from the Department of Homeland Security, down from more than a million people who became lawful residents in each of the previous six years.
The DHS report found about one in seven of those who gained permanent legal residence, 100,325 people, came from Mexico, a higher share than any other nation.
About 46,000 people moved in from India, and another 41,000 moved from China, according to the DHS data. More people moved from Asian countries — 272,000 — than from North American countries — 222,000 — the data show.
Along with Mexico, North American nations like the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Cuba and Jamaica are among the largest donors of new American residents.
The growing number of Asian immigrants — Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, Afghanistan and Pakistan all contributed tens of thousands of new Americans last year — is part of a long-term trend that began more than half a century ago, when the United States revised immigration policies to end racist exclusions of people from those nations.
“Ever since 1965, when the US revised its immigration laws, that was the beginning of big in-migration from Asia,” said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “In recent years, the Americas broadly and Asia have been the biggest contributors of new green card holders.”
South American nations accounted for about 62,000 new Americans, led by those coming from Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia. About 76,000 people from African nations, led by 12,000 Nigerians and 7,500 people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, along with thousands of Ethiopians, Egyptians and Ghanaians, earned residency in the United States.
Phillip Connor, a senior demographer at the immigration advocacy group FWD.us, said the number of migrants from African nations had been on the rise in recent years.
“The share that are coming from Africa has also increased over time. We’re not talking about doubling, but incrementally,” Connor said. Many of those new residents come for different reasons: Many Congolese have used refugee resettlement programs, while Nigerians have immigrated for skills-based jobs.
Overall rates of people gaining lawful permanent residency have dropped substantially in recent years, as the pandemic both left people sheltered in place and shuttered visa- or green card-processing offices at the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services and the State Department. And the Trump administration’s moves to add new barriers to residency played a role in a longer-term slowdown, Gelatt said.
“Throughout the Trump administration, we saw more vetting, more interviews, higher denial rates of all kinds of applications,” Gelatt said. “Even after reopening, they were working at a slower speed than before, which led to a sharp drop in people getting green cards.”
More than 1.18 million people won the right to live in the United States in 2016. That number dropped in each year of the Trump administration. The 707,000 people who won residency last year was the lowest figure since 2003, though it was still higher than rates of new residents during the late 1990s and most of the 1980s.
Migration from virtually every nation has slowed in recent years. New residents from Mexico are down from a peak of 174,000 in 2016; new residents from China have dropped by more than half since the beginning of the last decade, and legal migrants from India have fallen by a third.
Some nations send only a tiny number of people to the United States every year. DHS recorded only three new residents from the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, and four each from the Maldives, New Caledonia, the Seychelles and Sao Tome and Principe. Eight people moved from Monaco, and five from Gibraltar.
Lower migration rates have contributed to slower population growth across the country. The U.S. population grew by 7.4 percent over the last decade, according to the decennial Census, a slower rate of growth than in any decade since the 1930s.
Slowing population growth, in part because of lower migration rates, carries an economic cost, Connor said.
“We would require as a country that million [new resident] level every year to maintain economic growth,” he said. “Instead, we have a 50 percent reduction in it, so we are really in a challenge globally.”
Still, Gelatt said, more people come to the United States than leave.
“Overall, the number of people moving into the United States from abroad minus the number of people moving from the United States to abroad is still positive,” Gelatt said. “We have net positive migration.”