Immigration issues are complicated. These Talking Points will help educate you on the issues and give you a sense of why immigrants are vital for Philadelphia and the United States.

Immigrants, Refugees, and Asylum Seekers: Definitions

What is an immigrant?

An immigrant is any individual who comes to live permanently in another country. Immigrants may come to reunite with family, escape persecution, seek economic opportunity, or find a better life for their children. Immigrants may or may not have documentation permitting them to stay in the United States legally.

What is a refugee?

A refugee is any person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or a natural disaster. As a legal term in the U.S., “refugee” refers to someone who has been given refugee status before entering the country. Refugees are eligible for limited, short-term government support during resettlement.

What is an asylum seeker?

According to international law, any individual who has been forced to leave their country may enter the United States and ask for protection as asylum seekers. For example, people requesting asylum as soon as they cross the U.S. southern border fall into this category. Once a USCIS asylum officer or an immigration judge grants asylum, an asylum seeker becomes an “asylee” in official terminology.  Asylees have similar legal status to refugees and are eligible for similar benefits.

What is a sanctuary/4th Amendment city?

4th Amendment cities uphold the Constitution by refusing to detain someone without a warrant from a court signed by a judge. When the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal law enforcement agency that enforces U.S. immigration law, asks local law officials to detain individuals, 4th Amendment cities deny the request unless it is accompanied by a properly signed warrant. Philadelphia is currently a 4th Amendment city. Delaware County, Montgomery County, and Chester County have also declared their commitment to requiring a warrant in order to detain anyone.

What is DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals)?

In 2012, President Obama signed an Executive Order that permitted the Department of Homeland Security to defer deportation of undocumented young people who were brought to this country by their parents and raised here. Under DACA, these young people are able to stay in the U.S., attend school, and gain work authorization, though they are still not eligible to become citizens. 

Truths about Immigration

Most immigrants have no legal path to immigrate to the United States.

Immigration is not a matter of waiting in line for your turn. There are only four ways to immigrate to the U.S. legally:

  1. being offered a job by U.S. employer because of a skill.
  2. escaping persecution (refugees and asylum seekers).
  3. reuniting with close family in the U.S.
  4. winning the green-card lottery.

The number of immigrants in each category is significantly limited and subject to vetting. It can take between two and 20 years to immigrate legally to the United States. Many people have no avenue to immigrate to the U.S. at all. 

For the first 100 years, the U.S. had an open immigration system that allowed entrance to any able-bodied immigrant without wait time. Most immigrants who arrived before 1924 would not be allowed entry under current policy.

Immigrants statistically commit fewer crimes than US-born citizens.

Both legal and undocumented immigrants have far lower crime rates than native-born Americans do. According to the Cato Institute, immigrants are 1/5 as likely as native-born to be incarcerated for crimes.

Refugees are the most vetted category of any travelers to the US.

After 9/11, the United States’ security vetting process for refugees became the most rigorous in the world. It is comprised of between eight and ten time-sensitive steps. This means that if a refugee has cleared the first three steps but the clearances in step four don’t arrive until one of the earlier clearances have expired, the refugee must go back to the beginning and start the process over again. It is common for the security vetting process to take many, many years before a refugee is permitted to travel to the United States.

Many undocumented immigrants only know their lives in the United States.

Many undocumented immigrants have been contributing to the American work force and to their communities for decades. Some have lived here since they were children; others have children or other family members who are U.S. citizens. Their jobs, families, and their whole lives are in the U.S. Return for some immigrants can even mean death. According to a 2015 article in the Guardian, as many as 83 U.S. deportees were murdered on their return to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras since January 2014.

Other Useful Information

Immigrant, Refugee, Asylum Seeker: Statistics

Immigration to the United States:

  •  In 2015, 43.3 million people in the US were foreign-born, representing 13.5% of the population. 11 million of those were unauthorized.
  • In 2015, 1.38 million foreign-born individuals moved to the US. The largest numbers come from India, China, and Mexico.
  • It is estimated that 40% of unauthorized immigrants did not cross the border without permission to get into the country; they entered legally and overstayed their visas.

Statistics on immigration to Philadelphia

  • In 2015, approximately 200,000 foreign-born individuals lived in Philadelphia, making up 12.7% of the population. The increase in foreign-born population has helped stem the city’s decades long decline in population.
  • In 2015, approximately 50,000 Philadelphia residents were unauthorized, making up 3.2% of the population.
  • Pennsylvania was the ninth state in number of refugees resettled in fiscal year 2016, with 3,219. Approximately 800 were resettled in Philadelphia, 220 by HIAS Pennsylvania.


  • In 2019, the UN High Commission on Refugees found that 79.5 million people were displaced from their homes from conflict and persecution, including 26 million refugees and 4.2 million asylum-seekers. 
  • In fiscal year 2016, the US resettled 84,995 individuals. In Fiscal Year 2018, the US resettled 22,491 individuals, the fewest refugees the US has resettled since the Refugee Act of 1980.

Why are refugees and immigrants good for Philadelphia?

  1. In 2008, the Brookings Institute found that nearly 75 percent of greater Philadelphia’s labor force growth since 2000 is attributable to immigrants.
  2. The same study found that immigrants have a higher tendency towards entrepreneurial activities than the U.S. born. 11% of the foreign-born population are self-employed compared to 8% of the U.S. born. The Partnership for a New American Economy estimates that immigrants are nearly 50% more likely to start a business than native-born workers.
  3. Immigrants have played a significant role in Philadelphia’s population growth in recent years, helping to reverse fifty years of population loss and strengthening our city as a whole.
  4. Immigrants’ total share in the output in terms of wage, salary and business proprietor income was almost 15% between 2009 and 2011, which is larger than immigrants’ share of the population (13%). (Economic Policy Institute [EPI]).
  5. There is consensus among economists that immigration has a positive effect on labor market outcomes, although it can slightly reduce employment in the short run (EPI).

What is the economic cost of anti-immigration policies?

Slate has a a comprehensive article on the economic costs of deporting undocumented immigrants here.

  1. A loss of economic growth:
    • According to the National Academies of Science, immigrants provided a net benefit of $50 billion dollars from 1990 to 2010.
    • According to the former Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration (SSA), unauthorized workers pay $13 billion in Social Security taxes and only get about $1 billion back.
    • According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented immigrants paid $11.64 billion in state and local taxes in 2013.
  2. Government cost:
    • According to the Center for American Progress, it would cost $10,070 per person to deport the 11.3 undocumented individuals in the United States, for a total cost of $114 billion.
    • While the number of unauthorized immigrants has been going down, the number of adult and children immigrants in detention is rising. Detention is expensive and often unnecessary. According to federal government data, it costs $90-$150 to detain one person for one day, and the average length of detention is getting longer, at 34 days in FY2017.

Overall, according to the American Action Forum, expelling all unauthorized immigrants, and keeping them out, would cost $400 billion to $600 billion, and reduce the gross domestic product by $1 trillion.

Talking points about HIAS Pennsylvania

Driven by the Jewish value of “welcoming the stranger,” HIAS Pennsylvania supports immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers of all backgrounds from their arrival to citizenship. We work to ensure their fair treatment and full integration into American society.

Immigrants and refugees are under more attack today than at any time in our lifetimes. Since our founding in 1882, HIAS Pennsylvania has fought against other periods of nativism. Today we stand ready but need your help to provide the outreach, legal services, and social services that immigrants so desperately need. Here are a few of the services you support with your donations:

  • Legal representation for immigrants seeking asylum.
  • Support for immigrants preparing for citizenship.
  • Expert legal teams who serve groups with unique needs, such as youth, victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking, and victims of torture.
  • Accompanying immigrants to their interviews with government officials.
  • Support for English language teaching.
  • Guidance for immigrants seeking housing, employment, education, and medical services.
  • Advocacy at all levels of government for the rights and dignity of immigrants.

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