Immigration and Citizenship

Frequently Asked Questions

What does “foreign-born” mean?

The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) uses the term foreign-born to refer to anyone who is not a U.S. citizen at birth. This includes naturalized U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, temporary migrants (such as foreign students), humanitarian migrants (such as refugees and asylees), and unauthorized migrants. LiveStories uses the term immigrant as shorthand for foreign-born.

People who are not counted among the foreign-born are termed native or native-born by the Census. Such people include anyone born in the United States, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or abroad of a U.S. citizen parent or parents.

Who is a naturalized citizen?

A naturalized citizen is a foreign-born resident who acquires U.S. citizenship. Immigrants who have been permanent residents for at least five years—or three, if married to a U.S. citizen—can apply for citizenship. Other eligibility requirements include an ability to speak and write basic English, having a basic understanding of civics, and being “a person of good moral character” with an attachment to the principles of the Constitution. See the USCIS Naturalization site for more information.

Who is a permanent resident?

A permanent resident is a foreign-born resident with a “green card,” which allows them to live and work permanently in the United States. Green cards are available via a number of eligibility categories. For example, people may apply for a green card if they have family members who are U.S. citizens, if they have a desirable background for employment, or if they were admitted to the United States as a refugee or asylee, among other categories. See the USCIS Green Card site for more information.

How many immigrants are refugees or asylees?

Refugees and asylees (asylum-seekers) are people who have fled their countries of origin due to persecution. Refugees apply for admission to the United States from outside the country, while asylees have already entered the United States before they apply for asylum.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, during 2017, 53,691 refugees were admitted into the United States and 26,568 additional people were granted asylum. Between 1980 and 2017, over 3 million refugees were admitted into the United States (per FY2017 Table 13). Between 1990 and 2017, over 627,000 people were granted asylum (per FY2017 Table 16).

How many people are in the United States on visas?

A visa is a document that allows a foreign citizen to enter the United States. Unlike a green card, visas are temporary. There are two basic kinds: immigrant visas and nonimmigrant visas. According to the U.S. State Department Report of the Visa Office, 533,557 immigrant visas were granted in 2018. During the same year, 9,028,026 nonimmigrant visas were granted.

Obtaining an immigrant visa is essentially the first step in the process toward becoming a permanent resident via a green card. In contrast, nonimmigrant visas are given to people who do not intend to stay permanently in the United States, such as vacationers, temporary employees, and students. The full list of visa eligibility categories is available here.

Note that some people with nonimmigrant visas may be counted among the “foreign-born” by the American Community Survey, if they identify as a “resident” of a surveyed household.

How many immigrants are unauthorized?

Unauthorized immigrants—also called “undocumented” or “illegal aliens”—are people who enter or remain in the United States without the proper documentation. According to the latest estimate from the Department of Homeland Security in 2015, there were about 11 million unauthorized immigrants residing in the United States—roughly a quarter of the total foreign-born population.

The Migration Policy Institute, based on data from the 2012-2016 ACS data, estimates the number of unauthorized immigrants at 11.3 million. A more recent estimate (2017) from the Pew Research Center places the number at 10.5 million. No count of unauthorized immigrants exists, and all three sources rely on ACS estimates of the non-citizen foreign-born population as a baseline.

Some unauthorized immigrants cross the border without inspection. Others have obtained a visa but stay past its expiration date. According to a report by the Center for Migration Studies, about 62% of unauthorized immigrants were visa overstays in 2016. While improper entry into the country is a criminal offense (a misdemeanor), simply being in the United States without authorization—“unlawful presence”—is a civil, not a criminal, offense.

Are children of immigrants American citizens?

Most children of immigrants were born in the United States and are therefore American citizens. Anyone born on U.S. soil is automatically conferred citizenship, per the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” This concept is popularly known as “birthright citizenship.”

Does the Census collect information on citizenship?

Yes and no. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) does ask its sample of respondents whether or not they are citizens. These answers are used to generate estimates of the total number of naturalized or non-citizen immigrants throughout the country. The ACS does not ask foreign-born respondents about their legal status.

The decennial census—the count of all people and households in America, conducted every ten years—does not currently ask residents about their citizenship status.

Data collected by both the ACS and the decennial census is confidential by law, and cannot be used against respondents by government agencies or courts.