Why Legal Immigration Is Nearly Impossible: U.S. Legal Immigration Rules Explained

David J. Bier
Date of Publication: 
June, 2023
Source Organization: 
Cato Institute

This report places the U.S. immigration system, which the author sees as severely restrictive, in its historical context. For the first century after American independence, the United States had few restrictions on legal immigration. Even when it finally adopted some rules in the late 19th century, immigrants were presumed eligible for permanent residence unless the government showed that they fell into specific and usually narrow ineligible categories. In 1924, this presumption was flipped. Today, all immigrants are presumed to be ineligible; the burden has shifted from the government to the immigrant to prove that they fall into certain narrow, eligible categories. In this respect, current immigration policy is much like one of the few immigration‐​restricting laws of the earlier period, the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act—which also had some exceptions—but today’s restrictive law applies to all nationalities. According to the author, the United States has enacted what amounts to a “Worldwide Exclusion Act.” As of 2018, there were 158 million people who wanted to immigrate to the U.S. of whom 32 million began the legal immigration process, but only 900,000 were permitted to enter legally. Even some of the people who qualify to immigrate are barred from doing so because of the caps placed on immigration from single countries. The author points out that the United States ranks in the bottom third among wealthy countries for the foreign‐​born share of its population. The bulk of the paper provides an in-depth look at the restrictions that exist in all visa categories, including family-based migration, employment-based migration, refugee programs, and diversity visas. The author urges the administration and Congress to ease up on these restrictions so that the U.S. can continue to benefit from the energy and talent of the world’s immigrants.

Download now or view online.


Bier, D. (2023). Why Legal Immigration Is Nearly Impossible: U.S. Legal Immigration Rules Explained. Cato Institute. https://www.cato.org/policy-analysis/why-legal-immigration-nearly-imposs...