Green card holders actually leaving the United States
Green card holders abroad whom the IRS no longer considers U.S. Persons
|c. 15,000 per year?
Fewer than four thousand Form 8833 filers
Around ten thousand ex-LPR deportees
As Patrick Martin, Phil Hodgen, and others have pointed out, if you previously immigrated to the U.S. as a legal permanent resident (LPR, “green card holder”), the IRS considers you a U.S. Person for tax and asset-reporting purposes even if you’ve left the country. Per 26 USC § 7701(b)(6), the only way this changes is if you either take a treaty-based return position that you are a resident of another country, or get a determination from USCIS or a court that your LPR status is gone. You usually do the former by filing IRS Form 8833. You usually get the latter by filing USCIS Form I-407 or by being deported.
Absent that, you remain a “U.S. Person” even if your green card expires or you’ve been out of the country so long that it’s clear you’ve abandoned your residence in the United States. In other words, you are a resident of the U.S. for tax purposes, but not for residence purposes. How many people are stuck in this tax limbo? The Department of Homeland Security estimates that more than 1.3 million LPRs moved out of the U.S. from 2005 to 2012. Generously speaking, perhaps six hundred thousand took action during that period to retain their green cards by applying for re-entry permits from USCIS (whether or not they knew about the tax consequences of keeping their LPR status). Another 115,000 actually filed Form I-407 to cancel their green cards; there appear to be a similar number of Form 8833 filers and deportees.
That leaves possibly as many as half a million emigrants who no longer have any right of residence in the U.S. but remain subject to that country’s worldwide “citizenship-based taxation” net.
Sources of data and limitations
The statistics on I-407 filers come from a Freedom of Information Act request by Shadow Raider, which has received far less attention than it deserves; I am glad to see that professionals like Virginia La Torre Jeker are starting to make use of this interesting data.
For Form 8833, the IRS estimated in Paperwork Reduction Act filings that they receive about four thousand 8833s per year; most filers are likely to be dual-resident corporations rather than individuals, but even if they’re all LPRs, it doesn’t change this post’s conclusions that much. (It is theoretically possible to take a treaty-based return position without filing Form 8833, and indeed some such positions are explicitly exempted from Form 8833 filing, but I cannot find statistics on how many people do that, or how many of those positions would result in deemed abandonment of U.S. residence.)
Deportations appear to be of a similar order of magnitude as I-407 filings; DHS’s published statistics on deportations aren’t broken down by immigration status of deportees, but from the (outdated, second-hand) statistics I was able to find, about six thousand to ten thousand LPRs get deported each year.
I haven’t tried counting the more obscure ways of losing a green card, namely “reversion” (usually when a green card holder wants to take a diplomatic job and not waive immunity) or “rescission” (cancellation of adjustment of status, when a person in non-immigrant status obtained a green card for which they weren’t eligible).
LPRs abroad who want to keep their green cards?
Not all LPRs abroad automatically lose their LPR status; many take action to keep it. Some of them might think the tax & asset-reporting requirements are an acceptable price to pay for “insurance” (though I’d expect most of the people with this attitude would have just gone ahead and naturalised in the U.S. before moving back to their home country). The rest are blissfully ignorant of FBAR, Form 8621, and all that mess. It is difficult but possible to slip through the net and maintain a valid green card without being resident in the U.S.; some LPRs on webforums tell stories about living abroad for years while making numerous short visits to the U.S. to try to keep their green cards.
One possible indicator is the number of people who file Form I-131 to apply for a re-entry permit, which may allow an LPR to go back to the U.S. after an absence of up to two years. However, it’s difficult to interpret the Paperwork Reduction Act filings for this form, because it’s used for other purposes too, including by non-LPRs applying for advance parole. In particular, the number of I-131 filers has increased drastically since mid-2012 due to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals beneficiaries seeking to travel outside of the U.S.; by definition, none of them would be LPRs.
Fortunately, USCIS’ statistical reports divide I-131 filings into two categories, one for “advance parole” and one for “travel documents”. In their report for the fourth quarter of Fiscal Year 2012, USCIS says they received 86,661 I-131s applying for travel documents that year. Many of those applicants would have been refugees (unable to get passports from their countries of citizenship) taking short trips abroad, rather than LPRs seeking re-entry permits, but without any further breakdown from USCIS it’s impossible to say how many, so let’s just assume that all of them are LPRs intending to live abroad.
So as a back-of-the-envelope figure, we can say that at most six hundred thousand of the green card holders who moved out of the U.S. between 2005 and 2012 took action to keep their green cards, and the other seven-hundred-thousand-plus didn’t. Among the latter group, only a bit more than two hundred thousand had their green cards cancelled formally, leaving around five hundred thousand immigrants-turned-emigrants who took no action to keep their green cards but are still considered U.S. Persons by the IRS.
That headline number of half a milion depends heavily on the estimated rate of emigration, so it’s worth looking into those figures more carefully.
Each year, Michael Hoefer and Nancy Rytina (and previously, Bryan C. Baker) of the Department of Homeland Security publish an estimate of the population of U.S. residents without legal visa status (in popular parlance called “illegal immigrants”, even though many of them have no intention to remain permanently). DHS calculates this number as a residual: take the American Community Survey’s estimate of the total foreign-born population of the United States, subtract out the known population of non-immigrants with valid visas and the estimated population of immigrants, refugees, and asylees (whether naturalised or not), and everyone else left over should be an unauthorised resident.
The figure for the population of immigrants, refugees, and asylees is itself an estimate: DHS takes 1980 as a base year, adds known grants of green cards & refugee or asylee status from each year since then, and subtracts estimates of people dying or leaving the country. (They don’t subtract out naturalisations, since they presume that naturalised citizens remain in the country and thus get counted as part of the foreign-born population by the above-mentioned ACS.) This means that DHS has to estimate emigration among green card holders, refugees, and asylees for each year. As they described their methodology in 2007:
Emigration is a major component of immigrant population change. In the absence of data that directly measure emigration from the United States, researchers have developed indirect estimates based largely on Census data. For this report, annual emigration rates by year of entry (year of naturalization if the immigrant subsequently became a U.S. citizen) were calculated from estimates of emigration of the foreign-born population based on 1980 and 1990 Census data (Ahmed and Robinson, 1994). In addition, refugees and asylees, with little likelihood of returning to their country of origin, were assumed not to emigrate.
Previous DHS unauthorized population estimates for 2005 and 2006 assumed separate emigration rates by age and region of birth (Asia versus other) and a rate for refugees and asylees equal to one half that of other LPRs. The overall effective rate of emigration for legally resident immigrants in 2007 was about the same as the rate for the 2006 and 2005 estimates — 21 percent after twenty years. The primary compositional impact of the revision in method for 2007 was a decline of approximately 30 percent in the unauthorized population from Vietnam (resulting from an increase in the legally resident population).
In 2009 they raised their estimate of the twenty-year emigration rate to 22%, then lowered it back to 21% in 2010, and further to 19% in 2011. In 2006 they also gave an estimate of the 10-year emigration rate as 15%; in other words, they assume that your likelihood of emigration decreases the longer you hold a green card.
Very roughly speaking, this suggests that maybe a third of the emigrants in any given year had held their green cards for six years or more, the crucial length of time for exit tax purposes (“eight out of the last 15 calendar years”) — though of course, even those who emigrated before then will eventually hit the exit tax time threshold if they don’t properly file Form I-407 or otherwise get out of U.S. Person status.
Further reading on U.S. emigration
The DHS cites Bashir Ahmed & J. Gregory Robinson (1994), “Estimates of Emigration of the Foreign-Born Population: 1980-1990”, Technical Working Paper No. 9, U.S. Bureau of the Census. The Census Bureau also revisited this topic in a brief section in a more recent paper: Frederick W. Hollmann, Tammany J. Mulder & Jeffrey E. Kallan (January 2000), “Methodology and Assumptions for the Population Projections of the United States: 1999 to 2100”, Population Division Working Paper No. 38, Bureau of the Census: Washington, D.C.; in that paper, they estimated that 230,000 foreign-born and 48,000 native-born people emigrated from the U.S. in 1998.
If you’re looking for a shorter read, see the section on emigration (starting at page 269) in the 2000 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It gives all sorts of additional statistics (including estimates of emigration all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century and of the top 10 destination countries for American emigrants), along with little factoids like the last year the U.S. collected actual emigration statistics rather than estimates (1957).
Finally, there’s a paper cited by the INS: Robert Warren & Ellen Percy Kraly (1985), The Elusive Exodus: Emigration from the United States, Population Trends and Public Policy Occasional Paper No. 8, March, Population Reference Bureau: Washington, D.C.; this is the source of the historical emigration estimates in the INS yearbook. The full version is not available online; check WorldCat to see if your local library might have a copy. The abstract is available courtesy of PopLine:
Sufficient information is available to determine that during the 20th century the US gained about 30 million immigrants and lost approximately 10 million people to emigration. Currently, more than 150,000 people, mostly former immigrants, leave each year. A close look at emigration trends alters the perception of the impact immigration has on US society. The facts appear to contradict the notion that everyone wants to move to the US but no one wants to leave. Some portion of the immigrant population evenutally departs. A relatively new phenomenon over the past few decades is that US citizens also are emigrating in increasing numbers. This review and compilation of emigration statistics covers the relationship between immigration and emigration, the emigration of US citizens, and public policy and statistical implications.