The changing legal status distribution of immigrants: A caution

Douglas S. Massey, Katherine Bartley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

83 Scopus citations


This article presents arguments and data to show that the decennial census and annual Current Population Surveys include immigrants falling into four broad legal status groups: naturalized citizens; legal immigrants; legal nonimmigrants; and undocumented migrants. Since 1986, the relative rewards and penalties imposed on these four categories have shifted dramatically in response to U.S. policies, as have the relative number of foreigners in each group. In general, the relative share of foreigners in the most vulnerable status groups has increased, with the proportion of undocumented migrants and legal nonimmigrants rising and that of legal immigrants falling. Researchers using census and CPS data need to be aware of the shifting distribution of foreigners by legal status over time and of the changing profile of opportunities experienced by each status group, and they need to exercise caution in their interpretation of trends with respect to immigrant assimilation and the effects of immigration on U.S. society.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)469-484
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Migration Review
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2005

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Demography
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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