Published on January 17, 2020

The number of refugees arriving in the United States and the number of new green cards issued have both declined since 2016.

These facts come from the Department of Homeland Security’s recently released 2018 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics.

This data came out after a US Census Bureau release showing a decline in immigration to the United States in 2019. While the Department of Homeland Security numbers are not as current as the Census data, they provide some of the most comprehensive facts on issues related to immigration including visas, naturalizations, asylum, and refugee statuses and removals.

Here are key takeaways from the latest Yearbook of Immigration Statistics.

Refugee arrivals in 2018 were a quarter of that figure in 2016

During the fiscal year 2018 (Oct. 1, 2017 to Sept. 30, 2018), 22,405 refugees – those who seek resettlement due to persecution while not being in the United States—were admitted. That number fell 74% from the 84,988 who came to the United States in 2016. The 2018 figures were the lowest annual refugee arrivals since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980.

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Excluding a small increase in refugees from North America, the number of refugees from every region fell between 2016 and 2018.

Where the refugees came from changed too. Excluding a small increase in refugees from North America, the number of refugees from every region fell between 2016 and 2018. In 2016, at least 9,000 refugees each came from five countries: The Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia. In 2018, the Democratic Republic of Congo had the most refugees move to the United States, though the number dropped more than half: from 16,370 in 2016 to 7,878 in 2018.

Refugee resettlements from Iran, Iraq, and Syria fell more than 99% during this period.

Refugee arrivals by geography
Region and Country 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Total 74,602 73,293 56,384 58,179 69,909 69,975 69,920 84,988 53,691 22,405
Africa 9,678 13,325 7,693 10,629 15,984 17,501 22,492 31,647 20,248 10,468
Asia 58,309 52,695 44,583 44,416 48,840 47,197 43,115 48,287 26,648 7,522
Europe 1,693 1,238 996 908 482 818 2,164 3,664 5,026 3,460
North America 4,800 4,856 2,930 1,948 4,206 4,066 1,529 811 1,455 827
Afghanistan 349 515 428 481 661 753 910 2,737 1,311 805
Bhutan 13,452 12,363 14,999 15,070 9,134 8,434 5,775 5,817 3,550 2,228
Burma 18,202 16,693 16,972 14,160 16,299 14,598 18,386 12,347 5,078 3,555
Congo, Democratic Republic 1,135 3,174 977 1,863 2,563 4,540 7,876 16,370 9,377 7,878
Iran 5,381 3,543 2,032 1,758 2,578 2,846 3,109 3,750 2,577 41
Iraq 18,838 18,016 9,388 12,163 19,488 19,769 12,676 9,880 6,886 140
Somalia 4,189 4,884 3,161 4,911 7,608 9,000 8,858 9,020 6,130 257
Syria 25 25 29 31 36 105 1,682 12,587 6,557 62
Ukraine 601 449 428 372 227 490 1,451 2,543 4,264 2,635

The number of people granted green cards dropped for the second consecutive year, but more refugees are receiving them

The number of green cards granted was down 7% from 1,183,505 in 2016 to 1,096,611 in 2018. (Both are well below the record high of 1,826,595 in 1991.)

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New green cards issued to immigrants admitted in the most prevalent categories—including family-based, employment-based, and diversity—are all down between 2016 and 2018. However, green cards issued to refugees are up 30% from 120,216 to 155,734.

People receiving green cards by category of admission

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Apprehensions, removals, and returns were all up, but not near historic highs

Apprehensions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and US Customs and Border Protection went up 24% from 461,540 in 2017 to 572,566 in 2018. Removals, which are based on court orders, increased 17% from 288,093 to 337,287. The number of people returned—not based on court orders—to their original country increased 8% from 100,708 to 109,083.

None of these annual figures come close to historic highs.

In 2000, the federal government apprehended 1,814,729 people based on immigration enforcement.

Immigration enforcement apprehensions

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Returns peaked in 2000 with 1,675,876, while removals peaked in 2013 with 432,281.

Immigration removals and returns

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The number of people granted asylum nearly doubled since 2016

Asylum seekers differ from refugees in that while they also are fleeing persecution, they seek admission to the United States at their port of entry and not before.

In 2018, 38,687 people received asylum status. That’s up 46% from the 26,509 approved in 2017, and up 90% from the 20,362 approved in 2016.

Asylum takes two different forms in the United States. “Affirmative” asylum seekers actively apply with the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Those approvals are up 119% from 11,634 in 2016 to 25,439 in 2018.

“Defensive” asylum seekers are those seeking asylum once facing removal proceedings before the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). This type of asylum also includes cases of people caught at ports of entries or borders who cite that they cannot return to their home countries due to fear of persecution. Those figures were up 52% from 8,728 in 2016 and 13,248 in 2018.

It’s important to note that while the number of approved claims are up, they don’t reflect the asylum seekers who have come to the US-Mexico border, as the backlog of cases can delay a decision for years. In 2019, the immigration court backlog reached hundreds of thousands

The immigration data in the yearbook and on USAFacts helps provide context on a wide-ranging issue that touches on other matters like demographics, the economy, and security. Looking at recent data can shed light on how policies are taking effect and whether any changes are significant when looking at historical data as a whole.