Saturday, November 18, 2017
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PolitiFact: Employment-based green card claim mostly true, but needs more data

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The statement

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

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Feb. 7 in a Fox News interview

The ruling

As Cotton said, the United States issues about 1 million green cards a year, allowing recipients to permanently live and work in the country. 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.

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 news conference Feb. 7, the same day of his Fox News interview.

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.

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.

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

Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com.

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