The figures, which end a run of four years in which legal immigration has declined, have added to a growing debate in which two national currents of thought collide: the one stressing the benefits, the other the costs, of new residents.
The Immigration and Naturalisation Agency - which processes applications but does not set policy - cites a number of special circumstances for last year's increase in legal immigration. A spokesman said that it reflected in part the number of permits that were carried over into 1996 after not being used in 1995.
A larger factor, he said, was the knock-on effect of a 1986 amnesty of illegal immigrants; the new citizens are entitled to now bring in their families.
There is no ceiling on these numbers, the agency stresses; the US Congress sets the qualifications and those who meet them are allowed in.
The Cato Institute, which is well-disposed to immigration, agreed the figures represented a temporary blip and that immigration was set to continue its decline. "Immigrants are not just mouths to feed. They are productive hands and fertile minds," a spokesman said.
But the head of a group hostile to immigration, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, claimed the figures showed the whole system was out of control.
"What we need is an immigration time-out," said Dan Stein. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House of Representatives subcommittee on immigration, focused his argument on the nature of those being admitted, objecting that 2 million of the new immigrants over the next five years would have no secondary education and no skills.
Although this debate is still tranquil by European standards, the states and cities most affected by the increases are calling for policy to be tightened and at least one, Florida, is taking the federal government to court.