During its inaugural year as the nation’s gatekeeper, the Department of Homeland security sharply curtailed legal immigration in 2003, approving 34 percent fewer permanent residency applications and 19 percent fewer citizenship applications than the year before, recently released data shows.
The government granted fewer immigrant and nonimmigrant visas in almost every category, but it appeared to give preference to applications submitted by relatives while cutting back more sharply on those filed by employers.
The data was released this week in the 2003 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics.
Government officials and immigration analysts said the numbers don’t reflect that fewer people are attempting to immigrate to the United States, but rather that the agency took longer to process applications in 2003 because it needed to meet congressionally required guidelines that call for more stringent review of petitions for immigration benefits.
“It’s a different world,” said Dan Kane, spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the branch of government that adjudicates immigration benefits, alluding to the September 2001 terrorist attack.
“We need to make sure that people who seek immigration benefits do not have ties to terrorists or criminal backgrounds in their native countries,” he said.
The biggest slowdown was in applications for permanent residency submitted by people who are already in the United States. While nearly 680,000 such applications were approved in 2002, only 347,000 gained permanent residency in 2003—a fraction of the 1.2 million backlog of residency applications that immigration officials have promised to clear before 2006.
Mexicans in line to enter the United States on immigrant or temporary visas were dramatically affected. While more than 425,000 Mexicans were admitted as permanent residents in 2001 and 2002, only 116,000 became permanent residents in 2003.
Government officials and immigration experts say many of those processing applications were pulled from the job during fiscal year 2003 because they needed to undergo more stringent security clearance or help with terrorism-related projects, such as the program that sought to build a database with the information about men from countries deemed crucial in the war against terrorism.
“While we did not see the results of Sept. 11 in the 2002 numbers, we are certainly seeing them now,” said Elizabeth Grieco, a demographer at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., research organization.