After a Slump, Legal Immigration to the United States Is Returning to Pre-Pandemic Levels
Legal immigration to the United States appears to have bounced back from steep declines sparked by COVID-19 pandemic-related disruptions to human mobility and government operations as well as the restrictive policies of the Trump administration. Although final data have not yet been published for all of fiscal year (FY) 2022, the country looks to have accepted 1 million immigrants as permanent residents, edging up to the 1.1 million average in immigrant visa issuance over the last two decades. This represents a marked turnaround from the low of 707,000 permanent immigrants accepted in FY 2020, the fewest since FY 2003.
The recovery is most pronounced in the processing at U.S. consulates abroad, which issued more visas in FY 2022 than in FY 2019, the last full year before the pandemic began. Similarly, officials issued more temporary (nonimmigrant) visas in August and September 2022 than in August and September 2019, before the onset of the pandemic.
This strong recovery belies predictions that the pandemic had allowed the Trump administration to make lasting, deep cuts to legal immigration. Even before the onset of the pandemic, the Trump administration made multiple policy changes that many anticipated would lower legal immigration levels—including enhanced vetting practices, higher denial rates for certain types of visas, increased interview requirements, country-specific travel bans, and a new, strict public-charge rule—yet their impact had not demonstrably materialized before the public-health crisis. COVID-19 brought new policies, including travel bans for countries with virus outbreaks and bans on many categories of nonimmigrant and immigrant visas that lowered immigration levels. Pauses in visa processing and public-health restrictions also drastically slowed mobility worldwide.
While immigration slumped in FY 2020 and FY 2021, the rebound suggests that neither the Trump administration’s policies nor the pandemic have had enduring effects on the level of legal immigration to the United States.
The temporary fall, however, was serious. The United States granted about 750,000 fewer green cards during the last two years than normal and took in fewer temporary workers and students. This likely exacerbated labor shortages in certain industries and areas of the country, as the U.S. economy attempted to recover from the pandemic.
Further, U.S. immigration systems and agencies remain deeply impacted by office closures and other effects of the pandemic, as well as by systematic changes by the Trump administration. Wait times for visa interviews stretch for years at some U.S. consulates. And U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) faces a mounting backlog of applications to process, although it has recently made some headway in tackling parts of the logjam. The State Department has made several internal reforms to try and move applicants more quickly through the system, but substantial additional effort will be required to get immigration processing back on track. This article outlines the growth of legal immigration after the onset of the pandemic and U.S. government strategies to foster the resumption of immigration.
Immigrant Visa Issuance Returning to Pre-Pandemic Levels
Immigrant visas allow recipients to travel to the United States with lawful permanent residence and receive a green card after arrival. Before the pandemic, the State Department was issuing around 500,000 immigrant visas each year (see Figure 1). (The State Department handles legal permanent residence applications for those applying from outside the United States; USCIS handles applications for those inside the country who are seeking to adjust from another status.) In FY 2020, that number fell by about half, to 241,000, before recovering slightly to 285,000 the following year.
Based on preliminary monthly data from the State Department, it issued nearly 518,000 immigrant visas in FY 2022, over 55,000 more than in FY 2019, before COVID-19. (The tally of preliminary monthly visa data is generally between 4 percent and 7 percent higher than consolidated end-of-year reporting.) Data have not yet been published by USCIS about its issuance of green cards in FY 2022, but numbers from the first half of the year suggest this could also be close to 500,000. Thus, it is anticipated that at least 1 million immigrants were granted U.S. permanent residence in FY 2022.
Figure 1. Number of U.S. Permanent (Immigrant) Visas Issued to Individuals Applying from Outside the United States, FY 2018-22
Note: Data for fiscal year (FY) 2022 are estimates based on preliminary monthly data which may not match final end-of-year tallies.
Sources: U.S. State Department, “Monthly Immigrant Visa Issuance Statistics,” accessed November 23, 2022, available online; U.S. State Department, Table II: Classes of Immigrants Issued Visas at Foreign Service Posts: Fiscal Years 2017-2021 (Washington, DC: U.S. State Department, N.d.), available online.
The recovery in immigrant visas issued abroad was driven by a strong rebound in employment-based, diversity, and immediate (uncapped) family visa categories. Employment-based visa issuance was higher than normal in FY 2022 because of a quirk of immigration law allowing unused visas from capped family-preference categories (which include U.S. citizens’ adult children and siblings as well as green-card holders’ spouses and children) in one fiscal year to roll over to employment-based categories in the subsequent fiscal year. Delays in State Department processing resulted in about 262,000 such family-preference visa numbers going unused in FY 2020 and FY 2021 combined, which therefore rolled into employment-based categories. Due to this rollover, the number of employment-based visas available in FY 2022 was double the usual yearly allotment of 140,000.
While substantially more family-preference visas were issued in FY 2022, they were still underutilized due to processing delays, adversely affecting people eligible to receive an immigrant visa and leading to further delays for the 4 million applicants waiting for a family-preference visa number to become available. The State Department estimates that 57,000 family-preference visa numbers went unused in FY 2022, out of 226,000 available.
Figure 2. Number of U.S. Permanent (Immigrant) Visas Issued to Applicants Outside the United States by Category, FY 2018-22
Sources: U.S. State Department, “Monthly Immigrant Visa Issuance Statistics;” U.S. State Department, Table II: Classes of Immigrants Issued Visas at Foreign Service Posts: Fiscal Years 2017-2021.
The Biden administration also made use of all available employment-based and diversity visa slots in FY 2022, reflecting an apparent prioritization of these visas as well as those for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens (spouses, minor children, and parents) over the capped family categories. Between November 2020 and November 2021, U.S. consulates operated under guidelines that emphasized adjudicating adoptee, Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), and immediate family visas first, followed by family visas in capped categories, and then all other immigrant visas, including employment and diversity visa green cards. Once those guidelines were rescinded in November 2021, consulates were given broad discretion in how they prioritized processing. In FY 2021, some employment-based and diversity visas went unused, leading to well-publicized outcry from immigration lawyers, visa applicants, and business groups. Perhaps more importantly, the State Department faced lawsuits challenging its visa underutilization. As a result, the Biden administration seems to have placed a strong emphasis on using all available employment-based and diversity visa numbers in FY 2022.
Temporary Visas on the Rise, but Issuance Varies by Category
Fewer nonimmigrant visas were issued in FY 2022 than in pre-pandemic years. However, the rebound has been strong in the last few months, suggesting the country may be returning to its previous pace. More nonimmigrant visas were issued in August and September 2022 than in those same months in 2019, before the pandemic.
Figure 3. Number of U.S. Temporary (Nonimmigrant) Visas Issued, FY 2018-22
Sources: U.S. State Department, “Monthly Immigrant Visa Issuance Statistics;” U.S. State Department, Table I: Immigrant and Nonimmigrant Visas Issued at Foreign Service Posts: Fiscal Years 2017-2021 (Washington, DC: U.S. State Department, N.d.), available online.
In general, the largest number of nonimmigrant visas issued in any given year are for tourists. In pre-pandemic years, more than 6 million tourist visas and border crossing cards (for Mexican nationals) were issued each year. After a decline to 1.3 million in FY 2021, that number recovered to 4.5 million in FY 2022. The issuance of fewer visitor visas likely reflects the difficulty for would-be travelers to secure a visa interview slot (discussed below) and lower interest in international travel amid extensive disruptions and a huge spike in COVID-19 infections driven by the Omicron variant.
In contrast, issuance for most temporary work visas and international students either never dropped during the pandemic or recovered strongly in FY 2022. Due to strong demand and a concerted effort to continue consular processing of visas for farmworkers and some other temporary workers throughout 2020 and 2021, issuance for the uncapped H-2A temporary farmworker visa program actually increased during the pandemic and continued to rise in FY 2022. Issuance of H-2B visas for nonagricultural temporary work, which are capped, dipped slightly in FY 2020 but recovered in FY 2021 and grew in FY 2022. Among the main temporary work programs, only J-1 visas used for exchange visitors (a broad category that includes summer work travelers, students, research scholars, and au pairs) remained substantially below their pre-pandemic levels. Student (F-1) visa issuance was very low in FY 2020 but was higher in FY 2022 than the two years preceding the pandemic.
Figure 4. Number U.S. Temporary (Nonimmigrant) Visas Issued by Select Category, FY 2018-22
Notes: The F-1 visa is for international students, the H-1B visa is for high-skilled workers, the H-2A visa is for temporary agricultural workers, the H-2B visa is for temporary nonagricultural workers, the J-1 visa is for exchange visitors, and the L-1 visa is for workers transferred within their company.
Sources: U.S. State Department, “Monthly Immigrant Visa Issuance Statistics;” U.S. State Department, “Nonimmigrant Visa Statistics,” accessed November 23, 2022, available online.
USCIS Application Approvals
Unlike State Department processing, USCIS review of applications for immigration benefits underwent a less dramatic decline during the last two years. This is likely because only some applications require in-person interviews and also because public-health restrictions may have affected State Department processing and travel in general more than USCIS. Looking at key application categories shows that some approvals dropped in FY 2020, such as for naturalization and to adjust to permanent resident status, before recovering. But others were relatively unaffected, including applications by employers to sponsor a foreign worker for a temporary visa or green card and those by U.S. residents and citizens to sponsor family members for permanent residence (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Number of Immigration Applications Approved by USCIS by Select Category, FY 2018-22
Note: Data for fiscal year (FY) 2022 are projections based on numbers for the first three quarters of the fiscal year, since data for the last quarter of the year were not available at the time of publication.
Source: Authors’ calculations based on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), “All USCIS Application and Petition Form Types,” multiple years, available online.
Immigration Systems Remain Severely Backlogged
Even as immigration levels in many categories are returning to normal, enormous backlogs plague processing of various applications at the State Department and USCIS. Nearly 385,000 immigrant visa applicants who had completed their paperwork were awaiting consular interviews at the end of October. This marked a decline from a high of 532,000 in July 2021 but was still much higher than the pre-pandemic level of 61,000.
Worldwide, average wait times for nonimmigrant visa interviews have shrunk; the global median wait is seven days for a student or temporary worker visa interview and seven weeks for a tourist visa interview. However, wait times vary greatly by consulate and are stunningly long in some places. For tourist visas, the wait time as of November 22 was 994 days in Hyderabad, India; 961 days in New Delhi, India; 948 days in Chennai, India; 904 days in Kolkata, India; and 888 days in Nogales, Mexico. Offices in Mumbai, India and Lima, Peru, were offering only emergency tourist visa appointments. And waits for temporary worker visas were at least 300 days in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, New Delhi, and Kolkata, and more than 200 days in Kampala, Uganda, and La Paz, Bolivia, affecting U.S. employers as well as the would-be workers. The competition for visa interview slots in India in particular is so fierce that enterprising individuals have built Twitter accounts and web browser plug-ins to help applicants automate the process of checking for open slots. Third-party brokers have also found and claimed interview slots in order to sell them to migrants.
The State Department attributes long backlogs to two factors: Near-complete consulate closures from March to July 2020 followed by a slow reopening due to public-health measures, and a drop in revenue from visa fees due to fewer applications during the pandemic, which the State Department says forced it to leave 300 consular processing positions open in 2020 and 2021.
USCIS’s processing backlog, which stood at 5.7 million cases in December 2019, grew to 6.4 million in December 2020, 8.4 million in December 2021, and 8.8 million in June 2022, the latest data available. The largest backlogs were for petitions to sponsor a family member for a green card (1.7 million), applications for employment authorization documents (1.5 million), applications to replace a permanent resident card (1.0 million), and naturalization (666,000). While backlogs for many applications have grown since 2020, USCIS over the past year has chipped away at its unprocessed applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and naturalization, likely reflecting agency priorities.
Steps Toward Further Recovery
The State Department also has taken steps to tackle its backlogs. It has begun hiring for new positions, expecting to fully staff consulates by mid-2023. It has also shifted processing to allow staff at busy consulates to focus on in-person interviews and temporarily waived in-person interview requirements for many applicants already vetted for a prior visa or who previously traveled to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program. Because of this latter change, which may be extended into 2023, about half the nonimmigrant visas issued in FY 2022 were approved without an interview, according to the State Department. Still, even those seeking interview waivers can face waits of up to 300 days for their waiver applications to be adjudicated.
The department has also indicated it plans to return to a pre-2004 policy of renewing certain visas from within the United States instead of at a U.S. consulate abroad. The government had stopped this practice due to logistical challenges in capturing biometric data required by the post-9/11 Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002. Reissuing visas from inside the United States would require new staff stateside but could relieve pressure on consulates abroad and would allow visa holders to travel internationally without fearing their visa will not be renewed.
To process applications more efficiently, USCIS has also resumed a pre-Trump administration practice of waiving in-person interviews for some applicants who had been previously interviewed and vetted. A $275 million funding infusion by Congress for FY 2022 was aimed specifically at reducing agency processing backlogs, though USCIS is still working to hire new staff.
Continuing the Path Back to Normal
Visa issuance data show the impact of changing global mobility patterns and some Biden administration efforts to return legal immigration to previous levels. It will take further, sustained effort to address the still-outsized backlogs, which present major challenges for U.S. companies waiting for their sponsored workers, families hoping to reunify, and others. If they hope to clear these logjams, the State Department and USCIS will need to process applications and visas at a faster rate or find new flexibilities to reduce the workload, possibly including extending interview waiver options into 2023. USCIS’s ability to quickly staff up will likewise be key in getting the agency back on track, although hiring and training procedures are slow and the effects of new employees might not be felt for months.
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are multifold, including on the U.S. economy and immigration levels. As the United States continues its post-pandemic economic recovery, it does so with a significant shortfall of legally admitted immigrants resulting from the last two years. What this means for the U.S. economy ahead remains unclear, but it is likely that lower immigration levels exacerbated labor shortages this year. As the world seeks to move past the pandemic, the resumption of normal immigration trends is one metric to suggest that the country is entering a new era, even as agencies continue to battle persistent bureaucratic constraints.
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