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Press Release · June 4, 2008

Many Legal Immigrants Spent Time In U.S. Illegally

Route to Getting a Green Card Often Includes Illegal Entry or Visa Violation

SAN FRANCISCO, California, June 4, 2008 — Many immigrants who recently became legal permanent residents first lived in the United States illegally, according to a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). This is particularly true in California, where more than half lived in the state illegally before getting green cards.

The report analyzes the pathways immigrants take to become legal permanent residents and finds them far from straightforward. It sheds light on the poorly understood system that selects which immigrants can live here permanently. The findings can help guide lawmakers as they weigh policy changes, from sweeping reform bills like the one debated in 2007 to current efforts aimed at securing more green cards for foreign-born engineers.

The report finds that rather than being new arrivals, most immigrants have lived in the United States for some time when they get their green cards, the official identification of a legal permanent resident.

“The public debate about immigration can be so simplistic,” says Laura Hill, PPIC research fellow, who co-authored the report with PPIC research associate Joseph Hayes. “Immigrants are characterized as either legal or illegal. But it’s more complicated. It’s very common for immigrants to move from illegal to legal status. It’s also common for them to move from legal to illegal if they overstay a visa.”

The report is based on a representative survey of immigrants who became legal permanent residents in the United States in 2003. This information is more detailed and rich than typical federal data on the foreign-born. Among its findings:

  • Fewer than four in 10 (38%) legal permanent residents were new to the United States when they got their green cards and many had lived here illegally for at least some time. In California, more than half (52%) had lived in the country illegally. They either crossed the border illegally (35%) or violated the terms of their visas by overstaying a tourist visa or by working when they were not authorized (18%). In the United States, about four in 10 (42%) first lived in the country illegally. This group was more evenly divided between those who crossed the border illegally (20%) or violated their visa terms (22%).
  • In the nation as a whole, the pathways that immigrants – whether legal or illegal – took to legal residency differed significantly according to their home countries. Those who came from Asia and the Pacific were more likely to be new arrivals to the U.S. (53%). Those who came from Latin America and the Caribbean were more likely to have crossed the border illegally (41%) than immigrants from other regions. Those who violated their visa terms at some point before getting green cards were more likely to have come from the Mideast/North Africa (31%) or Europe/Central Asia (27%).
  • In the U.S. overall, immigrants who crossed the border illegally before becoming legal permanent residents were likely to be less educated and less proficient in English than recent permanent residents overall, but they were much more likely to be currently employed (72% vs. 56%). Immigrants who had violated the terms of their visas before becoming legal permanent residents were more educated, more likely to speak English well or very well, and also more likely to be currently employed than recent legal permanent residents overall (66% vs. 56%).

Understanding how factors such as country of origin or education currently affect immigrants’ opportunities and choices about settling in the United States can help policymakers as they consider proposals for change. The current system, in effect since 1965, gives preference to immigrants who seek to reunite with family members already here or to those in certain occupational categories.

The PPIC report, Immigrant Pathways to Legal Permanent Residence: Now and Under a Merit-Based System, also analyzes the potential impact of the reform bill of 2007. Although the measure failed, key aspects are likely to resurface in the future.

The reform bill included a merit-based point system that placed greater weight on employment in the United States in specific fields, advanced education, and English proficiency in considering who should be allowed to immigrate. The study concludes that the many of the intended reforms of the bill may not have occurred in practice. For example, an engineer with a PhD and English proficiency would not necessarily have enough points to become a legal permanent resident without some prior work experience in the United States. This analysis can inform policy debate in the future by showing whether the goals of new reform proposals are likely to be met in practice.


The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.