Legal Immigration Rises By 27 Percent


Legal immigration to the United States, fueled by a decade of changes in immigration law and dominated by Latin American and Asian arrivals, surged 27 percent in 1996, with 915,900 foreigners seeking visas to come to or remain in the country permanently.

Following a pattern that has lasted 25 years, California was the intended residence cited most often by those who won green cards to remain in the United States last year, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which released the annual statistics Tuesday.

Tuesday’s report set off debate over the causes and significance of the spurt and the wisdom of the policy changes that have contributed to it.

Clinton administration officials downplayed the significance of the reported increase, attributing much of it to a speedup in the processing of visa applications. INS officials cautioned Tuesday that the increase in immigration rates will likely last another two to three years before returning to 1995 levels of about 720,000 people per year.

They also emphasized that most of the “new” legal immigrants reflected in the latest count actually have been in the United States for some time, having come to the country in recent years to await visa approval.

Some of the 1996 increase stems from a 1994 change in immigration law that eased penalties for immigrants who come to the United States illegally pending approval of a green-card application. These newcomers usually come to join family members who will sponsor them. The change prompted a steep increase in applications by such immigrants, and it took INS two years to process the backlog.

In addition, some of the surge in the 1996 numbers appears related to President Reagan’s 1986 decision to grant amnesty to individuals living in the United States illegally.

Critics charged Tuesday that the new numbers are the “tip of the iceberg,” auguring a new surge of immigration.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform charged Tuesday the latest surge is the result of an officially sanctioned “Ponzi” scheme in which most legal immigrants may sponsor the immigration of large numbers of family members. Nearly 98 percent of the 3.5 million immigrants who have applied for green cards are family members of legal immigrants.

xxxx DESTINATIONS Top destinations of the 915,900 foreigners granted legal permanent residency in the United States last year: California: 201,529 New York: 154,095 Texas: 83,385 Florida: 79,461 New Jersey: 63,303 Illinois: 42,517 Massachusetts: 23,085 Virginia: 21,375 Maryland: 20,732 Washington: 18,833

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