More than half of new California immigrants who are permanent legal residents lived in the state illegally before getting green cards, according to an analysis released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The study suggests that the conventional notion of a legal immigrant as a brand-new arrival who has waited in a home country to get a green card is not the norm.

"The idea (is) you sit at home, you wait, you get the green card," said research fellow Laura Hill. "That's certainly an experience for immigrants, but it's not the most common."

Of green card holders living in California, 33 percent are new to the United States, never having entered the country before becoming legal residents here, according to the study. An additional 15 percent previously visited the country at least once without violating immigration rules.

But a majority — 52 percent — had past experience living in the country illegally, usually without the government knowing about it, Hill said.

The numbers were based on a survey of 8,000 people with green cards who shared detailed histories of their migration experiences with researchers as part of The New Immigrant Survey in 2003 and 2004.

Thirty-five percent of the California green card holders had come into the United States at least once before by illegally crossing the border, while 18 percent violated the terms of a legal visit by overstaying a tourist visa or working when they were not supposed to.


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"It highlights how overly simplified our understanding of immigrants and immigration can be," said Hill, who said a stark distinction between "illegal" and "legal" immigrants does not acknowledge the frequent correlation between both categories. "We need to be a little more cognizant of the variety and breadth of experience."

Along with California, the study looked at the country as a whole. It found that a somewhat smaller percentage of green card holders — 42 percent — have previously lived in the country illegally. Of those, 20 percent had crossed the border illegally and 22 percent had violated their visa terms.

Those who overstayed their visa before obtaining legal residency were most commonly from Europe and Central Asia, where the numbers were about 30 percent compared with 22 percent overall.

Latin Americans were those most likely to cross the border illegally — 41 percent compared with 20 percent overall. In California, the rate was even higher, with 62 of Latin American and Caribbean legal permanent residents having once crossed the border illegally.

Hill said her study also tried to compare current results against what might happen if the immigration reform measures that were proposed but dropped by the U.S. Congress last year were to come to fruition.

Those measures emphasize a more merit-based immigrant selection process compared with the family-focused immigration system in place since 1965.

The study reports that those immigrants now labeled as brand-new arrivals, who make up about 33 percent of current green card holders in California, would be least likely to be admitted under the proposed system because they are less likely to have relatives to sponsor them and, by definition, cannot obtain the U.S. work experience that would be an important factor in the merit-based system.

For the full report, visit www.ppic.org.

Reach Matt O'Brien at 925-977-8463 or mattobrien@bayareanewsgroup.com.