United States



Most Americans are but a few generations from the immigrant experience. With more US residents born abroad since 1990, they numbered 40 million in 2008: 36% naturalised citizens, 31% legal permanent residents, 30% undocumented (about 11 million), and 4% legal temporary workers. The mostly work- and family-based immigration is tied to ‘ceilings’, unchanged since 1990.

Debates on comprehensive immigration reform focus on border security, legalisation, breakdown of the legal immigration system and the need for a national integration strategy. Since early 20th century ‘Americanisation’ movements, voluntary and community organisations largely drive integration work, with government focusing on family reunion and naturalisation.

MIPEX finds that the US has some slightly favourable policies to encourage immigrants to participate and become full citizens. Immigrants with a legal status have good opportunities to live with their family and find a job, but not as good as those Americans enjoy. Strong anti-discrimination laws protect all residents. Still, the path to citizenship, even for legal immigrants, is not as easy as many think: high fees, backlogs and insecure rights put the US at just 9th compared to 29 European countries and Canada.

Timeline - What's Changed

0 February 2008
Political participation
Massachusetts, Maryland and Washington State start New Americans initiatives.
0 October 2008
Access to nationality
New citizenship test and guide.
0 December 2008
Task force on New Americans presents recommendations on integration and citizenship to President.
0 December 2008
Immigration reform
Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act (CIR ASAP) introduced in House.
0 February 2009
2010 federal budget increases support for integration of new immigrants to $18 million.
0 March 2010
Long-term residence
Affordable Care Act does not address federal benefits for legal permanent residents.

Key Findings

  • Strongest anti-discrimination laws, tied with CA, benefit all, including newcomers. 
  • Green Card: fragile status and exclusion from key federal benefits. 
  • Fees and backlogs for family reunion, green cards and naturalisation: signs of ’broken’ immigration system. 
  • Family reunion policies do not reflect many ways Americans and immigrants live together as families. 
  • ‘No Child Left Behind’ help schools target needs of limited English-proficient students. 
  • Dual nationality and some form of birthright citizenship: US and CA as model for most established and reforming immigration countries. 
  • Revised citizenship test encourages immigrants to succeed. 
  • Limited new state and local initiatives on ‘New Citizens’ and voting rights. 

Score Changes

Areas of Integration

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    A legal status in the US gives most migrant workers and their families some of the same chances in the labour market as native-born Americans. Both can look for employment, start a business, get help from the government in their job hunt, expect the same working conditions, and pay the same levels of tax and social security. Still, the job they find may be far below the skills they have, because some states and professional organisations are not working together to recognise their foreign diplomas. Countries with comprehensive integration strategies better target this and the other specific needs of workers born and trained abroad (e.g. CA, the Nordics and Northwest Europe).

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    The typical American family?

    US immigration law often fails to reflect the many ways that Americans and immigrants live together in families. Unlike legal permanent residents, many temporary residents cannot apply for their families while in the US, even with the resources to support them (instead, see 17 MIPEX countries). US legal permanent residents can only sponsor their parents or adult children after they naturalise. No one in the US has the right to apply for a visa to sponsor their foreign homosexual partner, unlike in half the MIPEX countries.

    Immigrants with legal status have a slightly favourable chance of immigrating with their immediate family members. But before families can reunite, they must overcome numerous institutional barriers including limited visa availability, high fees, and backlogs. For some, the wait to reunite can be 20 years because demand for visas far outweighs availability. In addition, the US defines family relationships narrowly (see box). Once families arrive, they have a generally secure future in the country and the same rights as their sponsor, as in most MIPEX countries. Some family members can also apply for autonomous residence permits, especially in cases of divorce or death, which is an area of weakness for most countries (see also leading CA, Nordics). 

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    Targeted programmes, ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB)

    Targeted programmes are provided by Head Start, the College Assistance Migrant Program and affirmative action. The 2001 NCLB Act set new goals for states to improve the attainment of all students, including certain immigrant groups such as limited English proficient (LEP) or Hispanic students. LEP students benefit from more targeted funding, support, monitoring, parental outreach and overall school accountability. Although immigrants have rights to English support since 1974’s Supreme Court decision Lau v. Nichols, NCLB improved the quality and range of these courses.

    All students, regardless of status, attend free public schools. Undocumented students have no clear legal path to college, nor in-state tuition in 39 states (unlike around half the MIPEX countries). Targeted programmes slightly help minority students and limited English speakers complete school, from pre-school to college (see box). Still states rarely see the new opportunities that migrant children bring. Some guarantee that all students can learn immigrant languages as their foreign language (like 22 countries), with around 10 states requiring bilingual education. A third requires all teachers be trained for diverse classrooms. States like Illinois and Texas try training and recruiting immigrant teachers. Many students do not learn about living together in diverse societies or see this in their textbooks. 

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    Councils of New Americans

    Illinois started the movement in 2005, followed by states such as Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington State. Immigrants are also consulted in major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Immigrant faith and community leaders are appointed by governors or city officials. Councils meet from time-to-time, often to organise public hearings, report, and make recommendations to government. In MIPEX countries, newer bodies are often organised this way (e.g. FR, GR, IE), while the older bodies in Northern Europe are more representative and immigrantled. http://www.immigrants.illinois.gov

    Before immigrants naturalise, they have few formal opportunities in American democratic life. All in the US have basic political freedoms, as in most MIPEX countries. Very few legal residents have local voting rights. More may get them, as towns and states debate the idea. These rights existed in 22 US states before the 1920s and exist today in 18 other MIPEX countries. Most new communities need private funds to organise, especially at national level. They are not represented by federally-sponsored organisations or advisory bodies (unlike in 9 MIPEX countries e.g. ES, NL). Several cities and states have recently recognised the importance of integration and created Councils of New Americans, though with basic mandates (see box). 

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    Green Cards: more fragile than most

    Legal permanent residence is more insecure in the US than in 21 European countries and CA. It is lost for several reasons, including relatively minor crimes, failure to file taxes, or travel abroad for more than 6 months. Decisions to deport legal permanent residents do not need to balance these reasons with their personal circumstances tying them to the US. Not even people living there for decades, since childhood, or with children are fully protected, because standards to cancel removal orders are very high.

    Immigrants who can become legal permanent residents enjoy fewer guarantees in American life than they do in most MIPEX countries. Many entering on temporary visas cannot settle as green-card holders, including immigrants the US tries to attract like international students and highly-skilled workers (instead, see CA, DK, SE). For those eligible, conditions in law are not unfavourable, but fees are among the highest in MIPEX countries and procedures the longest. Green-card holders are free to work and study. But since 1996, many cannot use federal benefits, unlike in all MIPEX countries but CY. This was not remedied in the final 2010 health care reform. Moreover, legal permanent residents have a relatively fragile status (see box). 

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    American citizenship: a dream deferred?

    New fees and backlogs may discourage many eligible residents. Fees rose by 69 % in 2007. These are now higher than in 25 of the 30 other MIPEX countries. Half ask for just normal administrative fees similar to obtaining passports. The US naturalisation procedure remains backlogged without any legal time limits (unlike in 13 MIPEX countries). Many long and discretionary security checks also leave applicants slightly insecure about their status. In terms of good practice, Canadian citizenship judges ensure the integrity of the naturalisation process.

    As a nation of immigrants, the US slightly encourages newcomers to become citizens in order to fully participate in American public life. Its core principles on citizenship are shared with other established countries of immigration (CA, FR, UK) and newer countries that have been inspired to reform. These principles are: around 5-years’ permanent residence for newcomers (7 other MIPEX countries), some birthright citizenship for their descendants (14) and dual nationality (17). MIPEX also finds that the revised citizenship test continues to provide the basic conditions for most applicants to succeed. Still, obstacles in the current procedure can keep eligible immigrants from the promise of citizenship, which gives the US its score of 61 (see box). 

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    People in the US (and CA) enjoy the strongest laws to protect them against discrimination and guarantee them equal opportunities. As models for other countries of immigration, a few leading countries in Western Europe are trying to make their laws as easy to use (SE, UK), while those in Central Europe are still learning how to use their relatively recent laws (BG, HU, RO).

    Racial, ethnic and religious discrimination is illegal in all areas of life. Equal opportunities legislation guarantees that no legal resident can be denied opportunities because of their national origin or citizenship, as in 14 other MIPEX countries. The US also limits accent discrimination and language requirements. For example, employers cannot ask non-US citizens to provide extra documents proving their right to work; they cannot require a higher level of English than is strictly necessary for the job; landlords cannot rent only to American citizens; schools and government agencies cannot refuse services to people with limited English.

    The mechanisms to enforce the law are the most favourable for potential victims of discrimination in the MIPEX countries. Organisations can support them in their cases or file civil actions. If they do not speak English well, the law requires free interpreters in federal court and state courts that receive federal funds. Courts are used for these cases and regularly accept statistical evidence and situation testing to prove discrimination. Civil and criminal cases are well enforced, but still lengthy. If their case is against the government, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigates the facts of their case, can instigate its own proceeding and enforces its findings.

    The federal government promotes equal opportunities throughout its work. The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division takes the lead on policy. Across government, disadvantaged groups can benefit from affirmative action as well as support for minority businesses, for instance through ‘supplier diversity’. Their work would improve if potential victims could obtain information and advice from national or local agencies, as in 21 other MIPEX countries, including FR, NL, SE and UK.