Immigration Fundamentals Page: 1 of 2
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Updated September 15, 1999
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Specialist in Immigration Policy
Domestic Social Policy Division
Key Definitions. Immigration to the United States is regulated by Federal law. The
basic U.S. law, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), was enacted in 1952 and
significantly amended since, most recently by the Illegal Immigration Reform and
Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. The INA defines an alien as "any person not a
citizen or national of the United States," and sets forth the conditions under which aliens
may enter the United States. The term alien is synonymous with noncitizen. It includes
aliens who are here legally, as well as aliens who are here illegally, in violation of the INA.
The two basic types of legal aliens are immigrants and nonimmigrants. Immigrants
are persons admitted as permanent residents of the United States. Nonimmigrants are
admitted temporarily as visitors for a specific purpose - for example, as tourists, foreign
students, diplomats, temporary agricultural workers, exchange visitors, or intracompany
business personnel. They are required to leave the country at the end of the time allotted
them for this purpose. The conditions for the admission of immigrants are much more
stringent, and fewer immigrants than nonimmigrants are admitted. Once admitted,
immigrants are subject to few restrictions. They may accept and change employment, and
may apply for U.S. citizenship through the naturalization process, generally after 5 years.
Key Statistics. In FY1998, 660,477 immigrants were admitted for permanent
residence. This was the lowest number in 10 years, not because of decreased demand but
because of INS processing backlogs. Approximately 600,000 immigrants naturalized in
FY1997. INS estimates the resident illegal alien population to be 5 million as of October
1996, compared to 3.9 million in October 1992, with an annual growth of 275,000.
Immigration: Numerical Limits and Preference Categories. Immigration
admissions are subject to a complex set of numerical limits and preference categories
giving priority for admission on the basis of family relationships, needed skills, and
geographic diversity. These include a flexible worldwide cap of 675,000, not including
refugees, and a per-country ceiling, which changes yearly and was 25,620 for FY1998.
Numbers allocated to the three preference tracks included a 226,000 minimum for family-
based, 140,000 for employment-based, and 55,000 for diversity immigrants. Unlike
preference immigrants, the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens - their spouses and
unmarried minor children, and the parents of adult U.S. citizens - are not subject to
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Immigration Fundamentals, report, September 15, 1999; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc805418/m1/1/: accessed October 22, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.