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Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde February 14, 2017

Arkansas senator says of 1 million green cards issued, few are employment-based

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton favors a new legal immigration system that’s less focused on extended family reunification and more aligned with bringing in skilled workers.

Cotton, of Arkansas, contended on Fox News that of 1 million green cards issued annually, very few are employment-based.

"Right now we have a legal immigration system that is not working for American workers. Blue-collar workers, people who work with their hands, on their feet, have seen their wages stagnate for decades," Cotton said Feb. 7 on Fox News. "At the same time, we’ve seen record levels of immigration in recent decades. A million green cards a year, the population of Montana added to this country every year, population of Arkansas added every year, almost none of those green cards are based on job skills or demonstrated economic need. So, of course they compete for blue-collar jobs and put downward pressure on working-class wages."

There’s a lot of debate about the role immigrants play in the workforce and how they impact wages. For this fact-check, we were curious about Cotton’s claim that almost none of the 1 million green cards issued each year are based on skills or economic need. Data from the Department of Homeland Security supports his claim.

Cotton filed a bill Feb. 13 to reduce the number of family-sponsored immigrants, to eliminate the Diversity Visa Program, and to limit the president’s discretion for setting the number of refugees admitted each year, among other things.

Cotton’s bill parallels one of President Donald Trump’s campaign promises to reform and limit legal immigration.

1 million green cards

The Immigration and Naturalization Act allows for 675,000 legal immigrant admissions a year, but that number is flexible, and certain categories for legal permanent resident are exceeded, says a 2014 Congressional Research Service report.

Admission preferences, according to the report, include: family-sponsored immigrants (about 480,000); employment-based preference immigrants (about 140,000); and diversity visa lottery immigrants (55,000). Refugees and asylum seekers who are adjusting their status are excluded from limit counts, the report said.

As Cotton said, the United States issues about 1 million green cards a year, allowing recipients to permanently live and work in the United States. The majority of people who become legal permanent residents annually already live in the country and receive their green card as a result of an adjustment of status. The rest are new arrivals.

The majority of green cards, about two-thirds, are given to individuals who have a family relationship with a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident in the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, in a 2013 post said the employment rate for family-based immigrants is 54 percent, excluding parents and minor children of U.S. citizens who are less likely to be of working age.

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Caroline Rabbitt, Cotton’s communications director, told us that when speaking about legal immigration reform, Cotton typically says only 1 out of every 15 immigrants come to the United States on a skills or employment-based visa and that his statement of "almost none" on Fox News was a modified turn of phrase.

"Only 1 out of every 15 immigrant is coming here for employment reasons. If we really needed all of these people because of their skills, because they help the economy grow, they’d be coming here on say an EB1 or EB2 visa, but they are not," Cotton said in a press conference Feb. 7, the same day of his Fox News interview, as he presented his new legislation.

Rabbitt presented us with a table noting the total number of green cards issued a year and the number and percentage of those that were skills-based (from 2001 to 2015). The calculations exclude green cards given to accompanying spouses and minor children.

Nowrasteh, from the Cato Institute, told us it’s fair to exclude spouses and children in this tabulation, "after all, they aren’t the ones who are supposed to work and they could have any level of skill, although the spouses are usually highly skilled."

On average, 6.73 percent of green cards issued went to someone who came to the United States because of their skills, based on Cotton’s calculation using DHS data. That’s on par with a similar 2013 claim from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who then said 6.5 percent of immigrants come here based on labor and skill. Rubio’s statement was based on a 2011 policy brief from the Brookings Institution. The report was the best approximation of conflicting numbers, the brief’s author, Darrell West, told us then. (More on how he derived at 6.5 percent here.)

West, who is vice president and director of Governance Studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings Institution, told PolitiFact that individuals coming in through family connections also work, pay taxes and contribute to the overall economy.

"Focusing just on those who enter through employment-based preferences ignores the economic contributions of other visa categories," West said, adding that many immigrants work in areas where there are employee shortages.

The employment-based preference includes people adjusting their status and new arrivals and who fall under five categories, such as individuals with extraordinary abilities, professionals with advanced degrees and religious workers. "Needed unskilled workers" also falls within the employment-based preference for green cards.

Our ruling

Cotton said that of 1 million green cards issued a year, "almost none of those green cards are based on job skills or demonstrated economic needs."

Cotton’s team told us the senator usually says one out of 15 green card recipients (about 6.7 percent) come to the United States for employment reasons. That estimate checks out with data from the Department of Homeland Security. But experts say focusing just on the employment category overlooks individuals who are also contributing to the economy, though they may have come under a different visa category.

Cotton’s statement is accurate, but needs additional information. We rate it Mostly True.

Our Sources

YouTube, Sen. Tom Cotton and Sen. David Perdue joint conference, Feb. 7, 2017

Email exchange, Caroline Rabbitt, communications director Sen. Tom Cotton, Feb. 10, 2017

Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, last published Dec. 15, 2016

Twitter, Sen. Tom Cotton, tweet of Fox News interview, Feb. 7, 2017

Cato Institute, Cutting Legal Immigration Won’t Help Low-Skilled American Workers, Feb. 9, 2017

Sen. Tom Cotton website, press release Cotton, Perdue Unveil the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, Feb. 7, 2017

Email interview, Darrell West, vice president and director of Governance Studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings Institution, Feb. 13, 2017

Email interview, Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, Feb. 13, 2017

Brookings Institution, Creating a "Brain Gain" for U.S. Employers: The Role of Immigration, Jan. 12, 2011, S.354, filed Feb. 13, 2017

PolitiFact, Group says Wisconsin jobless rate was on the rise while Paul Ryan advocated for immigration increases, Aug. 9, 2013

PolitiFact, Marco Rubio says only 6.5 percent of immigrants "come here based on labor and skill", Jan. 16, 2013

PolitiFact, Trump-O-Meter, Limit legal immigration, Jan. 16, 2017

PolitiFact, John McCain says half of STEM graduate degrees given to foreigners, April 30, 2013

PolitiFact, Jeb Bush says Canada issues more than 150,000 high-skilled visas, compared to 65,000 by the U.S., July 10, 2013

PunditFact, Economist: Immigrants have taken all new jobs created since 2000, Dec. 2, 2014

Congressional Research Service, Permanent Legal Immigration to the United States: Policy Overview, Oct. 29, 2014

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Arkansas senator says of 1 million green cards issued, few are employment-based

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