FACT CHECK: Has Legal Immigration ‘Ebbed And Flowed’ In American History?

Kush Desai | Fact Check Reporter

White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller claimed “if you look at the history of immigration, it’s actually ebbed and flowed” during a press conference Wednesday.

Miller was arguing with CNN’s Jim Acosta over the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, introduced by GOP Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue. The bill cuts legal permanent immigration via the green card program in half and gives priority to high skilled foreigners who speak English and are financially independent.

Verdict: True

Data from the Department of Homeland Security reveals that over a nearly two century period from 1820 to 2015 immigration of permanent legal residents has indeed “ebbed and flowed.” Miller’s claim is true.

Fact Check:

The Department of Homeland Security annually publishes a Yearbook Of Immigration Statistics. One statistic included in the yearbook is the number of foreigners who obtain “lawful permanent resident status,” such as new immigrants who receive a green card. The Daily Caller News Foundation used this statistic as a metric to measure yearly immigration in order to analyze Miller’s claim.

Yearly numbers of immigrants who received legal permanent residence in the U.S. hovered around 10,000 to 25,000 people between 1820 and 1831. These numbers spiked dramatically after 1831 and growth continued to accelerate after the mid-1840s as the devastating Great Famine afflicted Ireland.

Between 200,000 and 400,000 immigrants were annually granted legal permanent residence in the U.S. during the 1850s. These numbers dropped to below 200,000 – as low as 90,000 immigrants in 1861 and 1862 – during the brutal years of the American Civil War.

Half a century later, new immigrants receiving legal permanent residence averaged record highs of over 900,000 people a year between 1901 and 1914, dropping after 1914 due to World War I. This figure picked up again after World War I but dipped to an average of just 89,000 people per year during the Great Depression between 1929 and 1939. Immigration during the Depression was at its lowest in 1933 when just 23,000 foreigners were granted legal residence in the U.S.

After World War II, immigration figures started growing again.

In 1945, 38,000 immigrants received legal permanent residence in the U.S. In 1946, it was 108,000 – a nearly four-fold growth.

During the 1950s, the U.S. averaged granting legal permanent residence to about 250,000 immigrants per year. In the 1960s, the figure was over 320,000 immigrants per year. It hiked up by roughly a third in the 1970s to around 420,000 immigrants per year. The figured then jumped again by almost 50 percent in the 1980s to close to 620,000 immigrants per year. It again increased by roughly half to almost one million immigrants per year in the 1990s. Immigration was at its highest ever in 1991, when over 1.8 million foreigners were granted permanent legal residence. The most recent data available is from 2015, when the U.S. granted legal residence to 1.05 million immigrants.

Stephen Miller’s claim that immigration rates have “ebbed and flowed” is thus correct. Between 1820 and 2015, legal immigration figures have fluctuated from periods of less than 10,000 immigrants being granted legal residence a year to nearly two million immigrants a year.

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Kush Desai

Fact Check Reporter