Illegal immigrant population of the United States

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The actual size and the origin of the illegal immigrant population in the United States is uncertain and is difficult to ascertain because of difficulty in accurately counting individuals in this population. National surveys, administrative data and other sources of information provide inaccurate measures of the size of the illegal immigrant population and current estimates based on these data indicate that the current population may range from 7 million to 20 million.

An estimated 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants were living in US in January 2000 through January 2011.[1] This is a decline from the historic peak of 12.5 million seen in 2007.[2]


Residual method[edit]

The "residual method" is widely used to estimate the unauthorized immigrant population of the USA. With this method, the known number of legal immigrants to the United States is subtracted from the reported U.S. Census number of self-proclaimed foreign born people (based on immigration records and adjusted by projections of deaths and out-migration) to obtain the total, unauthorized immigrant (residual) population.[3] This methodology is used by the US Department of Homeland Security,[4] the Pew Hispanic Center, the Center for Immigration Studies,[5] and the US Census Bureau. Since unauthorized immigrants have many reasons for not answering the U.S. Census correctly and since there are no penalties for answering the U.S. Census incorrectly, it is accepted that it under-counts the number of illegal immigrants. The users of this methodology assume that 10% of illegal immigrants are not counted by census takers.[5] The 10% assumption is based on a 2001 University of California survey asked of 829 people born in Mexico and living in Los Angeles whether they responded to census interviewers in the 2000 census with 40% of queried households refusing to answer the survey.[5] Critics claim that the estimate is unreliable for a number of reasons: figures for outmigration are not tracked by the federal government; the proportion of illegal immigrants who respond to the Census is unknown; the estimate that 10% of illegal immigrants do not respond to the census is arbitrary and unsupported by a sufficient sample size and geographic spread; and that the self reporting of where one was born relies on the honesty of the person being questioned.[5]

Using the residual methodology with a minimal 10% foreign born under-count correction (reason for correction size unstated) for the 2000 census, a 700,000 net illegal immigrant increase/year assumption and data from the March 2004 Current Population Survey, Pew estimated that there were 10.3 million illegal immigrants in the USA in 2004. Assuming the same rate of growth, Pew projected this population reached at least 11 million as of March 2005.[citation needed]

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that, in the 1980s, the net advance of the U.S. illegal immigrant population was at 130,000 per year, increasing to 450,000 per year from 1990 through 1994, further increasing to 750,000 per year from 1995 through 1999, and staying at 700,000–850,000+ per year since about 2000. Illegal Mexican immigration amounts to about 500,000 per year of this influx since about 1999. According to the same Pew Hispanic Center study as of March 2005, the undocumented U.S. population had reached 11 million or more, including more than 6.5 million undocumented Mexicans, which is around 60% of all unauthorized immigrants. Assuming the same rate of growth as in recent years gives around 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States as of January 2006, increasing at 700,000–850,000 per year—with undocumented Mexicans amounting to about 60%+ (7+ million) of the overall total by 2006. By September 2006, the illegal immigrant U.S. population was thought to be around 13 million. About one-sixth of the illegal immigrant population—about 1.7 million people as of 2005—is under 18 years of age.[6]

In 2006, legal immigrants to the United States numbered approximately 1,000,000 per year - of which about 600,000 were Change of Status immigrants who were already in the USA. Legal immigrants to the United States are now at their highest level ever at over 35,000,000. Net advances by illegal immigrants into the USA have also soared from about 130,000 per year in the 1970s, to 300,000+ per year in the 1980s, to over 500,000 per year in the 1990s, to over 700,000 per year in the 2000s. Total entrance by unauthorized immigrants into the USA may have been as high as 1,500,000 per year in 2006 - with a net of at least 700,000 more unauthorized immigrants arriving each year to join the 12,000,000 to 20,000,000 that are already here in the USA[6] [7]

Barlett-Steele method[edit]

Pulitzer prize winning[8] investigative journalists Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele estimated in Time magazine (in its September 12, 2004 issue) that the number of unauthorized immigrants entering into the USA that year would total 3 million based on Department of Homeland security estimates that only one out of four illegal immigrants is apprehended at the border.[8][9]

Bear Sterns' method[edit]

Mexican Remittances and Illegal Population Growth

Year * Remittances
% Increase
per year
Illegal **
Pew ***

1995 3.673 3.000
1996 4.224 15.0% 3.450 450 400
1997 4.865 15.2% 3.974 524 400
1998 4.744 -2.5% 3.875 -99 400
1999 5.910 24.6% 4.827 952 400
2000 6.573 11.2% 5.369 542 500
2001 8.895 35.3% 7.265 1,897 500
2002 9.814 10.3% 8.016 751 500
2003 13.396 36.5% 10.941 2,926 500
2004 16.613 24.0% 13.569 2,628 500
2005 20.035 20.6% 16.364 2,795 500
Non-Mex. 4.0 to 6.0

Total illegal aliens estimated by Bear Stearns 20.0 to 22.0 million**

Assumes the amount of remittances from the USA is proportional to the number of Mexicans living in the USA.
As can be seen the Pew and Bear Stern numbers are in basic agreement until around the year 2000.
Total remittances in 2005 were around $20 billion.

In 2005, Bear Stearns' investigators[11] developed a different methodology to determine the number of illegal immigrants in the United States. They made the assumption that the amount of remittances (money sent back to Mexico) is directly proportional to the number of Mexican immigrants in the United States. Other data used for their estimates are the increases of households and school enrollment in Mexican immigrant communities. They conclude that the number of illegal immigrants in the United States may well be twice the official number put out by the U.S. Census of 9 million and may be 20 million people or higher. Information from The Mexican Central Bank details the remittances and shows their growth.[12]

According to that data, remittances stayed fairly stable until 2000 when a steady and dramatic increase began. The change in remittances between 1997 and 1999 is most likely a problem in accounting – the three year average is still about 450 thousand/year consistent with other data. The agreement with the Pew estimate is reasonably good up to 2001 where there is a significant difference – just where the Pew and Census data becomes harder to extrapolate because of lack of good data. Using this technique Bear Sterns investigators come up with a possible illegal population of 20 million or greater. (See figure for calculation) Other data confirming their estimates are the dramatic increases of households and school enrollment in Mexican immigrant communities (read their report for more details). Border Arrest data do not show this dramatic increase in apprehensions.

Impact of the global financial crisis of 2008–2009[edit]

The global financial crisis has had a large impact on America. The construction sector and other areas illegal immigrants traditionally seek employment in have shrunk. The recession has also led to a surplus of American labor driving down the benefit of hiring illegal immigrants. It is estimated that over a million illegal immigrants have returned to Mexico since the beginning of the crisis.[2]


In 2005, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report, there were 6.2 million illegal immigrants from Mexico making 56 percent of immigrants present in the United States illegally. Another 24 percent are from other Latin American countries. Approximately 9 percent are from Asia, 6 percent from Europe and Canada, with the remaining 4 percent from the rest of the world.[6]

Country of Origin (January 2006)

Mexico 6,840,000 56%
Latin & Central Amer. 3,000,000 24%
Asia 1,080,000 9%
Europe + Canada 720,000 6%
Rest of World 480,000 4%

The number of Mexican legal immigrants and Mexican illegal immigrants in the United States has grown quite rapidly over the past 35 years, increasing almost 15-fold from about 760,000 in the 1970 Census to more than 11 million in 2004–an average annual growth rate of more than 8 percent, maintained over more than 3 decades.[citation needed] On average the net Mexican population, both legal and illegal, living in the United States has grown by about 500,000 per year from 1995 to 2005 with 80 to 85 percent of the growth attributed to illegal immigration.[13]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b Preston, Julia (July 31, 2008). "Decline Seen in Numbers of People Here Illegally". The New York Times. Retrieved May 5, 2010. 
  3. ^ Jeffrey S. Passel (June 2005). "Unauthorized Migrants: Numbers and Characteristics" (PDF). Pew Hispanic Center. p. 7. 
  4. ^ MICHAEL HOEFER; CHRISTOPHER CAMPBELL; NANCY RYTINA (January 2015). "Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: May 2006" (PDF). US Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, Policy Directorate. 
  5. ^ a b c d Wall Street Journal: "In Counting Illegal Immigrants, Certain Assumptions Apply" by Carl Bialik May 7, 2010
  6. ^ a b c PEW 2005, p. 1
  7. ^ Steven Malanga (Summer 2006). "How Unskilled Immigrants Hurt Our Economy". 
  8. ^ a b National Public Radio: "Gauging Illegal Immigration Numbers" May 05, 2006
  9. ^ DONALD L. BARLETT; JAMES B. STEELE (September 20, 2004). "Who Left the Door Open?". Time. p. 5. 
  10. ^ Sources:
    * Banco de Mexico
    ** Bear Stern's investigators
    ***PEW 2005[not in citation given]
  11. ^
  12. ^ "CPSS-WB General Principles for International Remittances Services: The Point of View of Authorities: Banco de México" (PDF). The World Bank. May 2006. 
  13. ^ Pew Hispanic Center: "The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S. - Estimates Based on the March 2005 Current Population Survey" by Jeffrey S. Passel March 7, 2006 |"The Mexican-born population in the United States, including both legal and unauthorized migrants, has grown by about 500,000 people a year for the past decade. Of the Mexican migrants in the U.S. less than 10 years, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that approximately 80 to 85% are unauthorized"

External links[edit]