The United States has welcomed more than 85 million legal immigrants to the United States since its founding. But at no time since it has maintained records has the country witnessed as fast a decline in legal immigration as it has seen in the second half of fiscal year 2020 (which finished September 30). Overall, the second half of FY 2020 saw 92 percent fewer immigrants from abroad than the first half, which was larger than any annual decline in the history of the United States.
Figure 1 shows the monthly immigrant visa issuances under the Trump administration since March 2017. As it shows, legal immigration almost wholly stopped in April and May 2020—after the State Department closed its consulates and President Trump issued a proclamation suspending new visa issuances to most immigrant categories. It has recovered slightly since then, but it remains 84 percent below last year (which was also a down year).
Figure 2 shows the number of new arrivals of legal permanent residents or immigrant visas approved by year from 1820 to 2020, with the third and fourth quarter of FY 2020 added. The United States witnessed a more than 90 percent falloff in new immigration from abroad during the second half of FY 2020. This brings the annualized legal immigration rate from abroad to 0.03 percent of the U.S. population. This is the lowest rate of immigration except for three years during World War II and one year during the Great Depression.
The 92 percent drop in the second half of FY 2020 is larger than the drop during any single year in American history—larger than the 73 percent decline in 1915 coinciding with the start of World War I, larger than the 70 percent decline in 1925 coinciding with Congress closing legal immigration from Europe, larger than the 63 percent declines in 1931, 1942, and 1918 following the onset of the Great Depression and U.S. entries into each world war. Table 1 shows the data for all available years and the change for the second half of 2020 from the first half. While it’s only half a year, Figure 1 indicates how slow the immigration recovery has been. It is unlikely that the 2021 will be much different if President Trump is reelected.
Before 1924, immigrants were never required to receive immigrant visas abroad to enter and become legal permanent residents, and from 1924 to 1952, nearly all immigrants had to receive immigrant visas abroad to become legal permanent residents. In recent years, about half of all new legal permanent residents have adjusted their status to permanent residence from temporary statuses, such the H-1B visa, refugee status, or illegal status. Generally, the number of new “immigrants” include both the number of new arrivals from abroad and those adjusting in the United States, but it’s also important to see who is entering from abroad because that reflects real changes in the U.S. population. The number of work visas, of course, have also declined just as dramatically.
This historic slowdown is important for both the short‐term and long‐term economic growth of the United States. Fewer workers mean that jobs will take longer to fill and slow the economic recovery, and in coming years, fewer workers will support more retirees. If the United States remains closed long enough, it could push worldwide patterns of immigration away toward other countries with more welcoming policies.