The annual flow of immigration consists of two parts: legal and illegal. There is no fixed limit to the number of legal immigrants admitted annually, because the category of immediate relatives is unlimited and because the ceiling for admission of refugees is set independently each year.
The immediate relative category includes unmarried minor children, spouses, and parents of U.S. citizens and is unlimited. Any qualified foreigner who is the immediate relative of a U.S. citizen has a right to a visa under current immigration law, without regard to any limits on admission in general or on the flow from any one country. Other relatives fall into four sub-categories called preferences (see chart for details). Relatives accounted for 65 percent of immigration in 2006.
Employment-based immigrants are admitted either because employers sponsor them or they have special qualifications. About half of all employed-based visas go not to workers, but to their accompanying family members.
Other Legal Immigrants
Refugees and asylees are applicants for admission who are found to have fled their homeland due to persecution or the fear of persecution. Refugees apply from abroad and are subject to a numerical limit. Asylees apply from the within the U.S., and there is no limit to how many may apply or be granted asylum. Many more people apply for asylum than receive it. Many of these claims are from illegal aliens who simply seek to avoid deportation.
There are a few other special immigration programs, such as the diversity visa lottery (55,000 visas). These special programs operate outside the core immigration programs mentioned above.
Illegal aliens fall into two broad categories: those who come here temporarily, and those who come to reside here. Arriving illegal aliens may number as many as three million a year; more precise figures are elusive. After accounting for illegal aliens who are deported or leave on their own or who die, the illegal alien population is estimated to be growing each year by about 500,000 persons. The Census Bureau's estimate of the number of illegal aliens living is the U.S. in 2000 is 8,700,000; other estimates are as high as twenty million.
Immediate Relatives of United States Citizens Unlimited478,780
Unmarried Adult Children of United States Citizens 23,40020,660
Spouses and Unmarried Adult Children of Residents 114,20099,709
Married Adult Children of United States Citizens23,40021,752
Siblings of United States Citizens 65,00059,898
Employment Preferences 140,000143,998
Skilled and Unskilled Workers and Professionals40,04039,229
Special Immigrants 9,9407,866
Legal Immigrants, Total 1,031,631
DHS Yearbook of Immigration Statistics FY '2012
Unlike many other countries, the United States has an immigration policy that does little to ensure that annual immigration is beneficial to society. Most immigrant admissions are based on who came before, not on whose skills the country might need now. If you don't include the nearly 78,477 family members of immigrants who get employment-based visas, approximately 5.8 percent of immigrant admissions in FY'09 were based on employment qualifications. While there is an immigration limit for family-sponsored and employer-sponsored immigrants, the admissions under those categories amount to less than one-third (31.5%) of total admissions.