Illegal immigration to the United States

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Warning sign posted at the international boundary between the United States and Canada in Point Roberts, Washington.

Illegal immigration to the United States is the violation of United States immigration laws by foreign nationals who enter the country without government permission (i.e., a visa) or, after lawful admittance, remain within the country beyond their period of authorized admission. The United States essentially had open borders until 1924, which meant that all immigrants to the United States up to that point were legal.[1][dubious ] National Origins Act of 1924 established visa requirements and enacted quotas for immigrants from specific countries.[2]

The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has estimated that 11.4 million illegal immigrants lived in the United States in January 2012. According to DHS estimates, "the number of illegal immigrants peaked around 12 million in 2007 and has gradually declined to closer to 11 million."[3] The DHS estimate "is in the same ballpark as several independent organizations that study illegal immigration, including Pew Research Center (11.3 million); the Center for Migration Studies (11 million), which studies migration and promotes policies that safeguard the rights of migrants, and the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for low levels of legal immigration (11–12 million)."[3]

For the fiscal year 2015, DHS reported that the number of new visa overstays (not counting late departures) was 527,127.[4] For that period, DHS conducted a total of 462,463 removals and returns.[5] For the same time period, ICE removed or returned 235,413 individuals.[5] According to ICE, 166 people died while detained between 2003 and 2016.[6] As of 2015, illegal immigration to the United States continued to decline in comparison to its peak in the year 2000.[5]

In 2012, 52% were from Mexico, 15% from Central America, 12% from Asia, 6% from South America, 5% from the Caribbean, and another 5% from Europe and Canada.[7] Economic reasons are the most popular motivation for people to illegally immigrate to the United States.[8][9][10]


Profile and demographics[edit]

In 2012, an estimated 14 million people live in families in which the head of household or the spouse is in the United States without authorization.[11] Illegal immigrants arriving recently before 2012 tend to be better educated than those who have been in the country a decade or more. A quarter of all immigrants who have arrived in recently before 2012 have at least some college education. Nonetheless, illegal immigrants as a group tend to be less educated than other sections of the U.S. population: 49 percent haven't completed high school, compared with 9 percent of native-born Americans and 25 percent of legal immigrants.[11] Illegal immigrants work in many sectors of the U.S. economy. According to National Public Radio in 2005, about 3 percent work in agriculture; 33 percent have jobs in service industries; and substantial numbers can be found in construction and related occupations (16 percent), and in production, installation, and repair (17 percent).[11] According to USA Today in 2006, about 4 percent work in farming; 21 percent have jobs in service industries; and substantial numbers can be found in construction and related occupations (19 percent), and in production, installation, and repair (15 percent), with 12% in sales, 10% in management, and 8% in transportation.[12] Illegal immigrants have lower incomes than both legal immigrants and native-born Americans, but earnings do increase somewhat the longer an individual is in the country.[11]

Breakdown by state[edit]

As of 2006,[13] the following data table shows a spread of distribution of locations where illegal immigrants reside by state.

State of Residence of the Illegal Immigrant Population: January 2000 and 2006
State of residence Estimated population in January Percent of total Percent change Average annual change
All states 11,555,000 100 37 515,000
California 2,930,000 25 13 53,000
Texas 1,640,000 14 50 92,000
Florida 980,000 8 23 30,000
Illinois 550,000 5 25 18,000
New York 540,000 5
Arizona 500,000 4 52 28,000
Georgia 457,000 4 123 45,000
New Jersey 430,000 4 23 13,000
North Carolina 370,000 3 42 18,000
Washington 280,000 2 65 18,000
Other states 2,950,000 26 69 200,000

Yearly new illegal immigration[edit]

Separate from the total number of illegal immigrants is the pace of growth or shrinkage of this total.

The DHS releases yearly reports from which the rate of new illegal immigration can be estimated. The most recent data is from FY 2015. One has to combine visa overstays and cross-border illegal entries from separate reports.

For fiscal year 2015, DHS reports that the number of new visa overstays (not counting late departures) was 527,127 [4]

The number of immigrants that cross the border illegally each year are not directly countable, and are estimated from the number who are caught trying. For FY 2015, DHS reported 337,117 apprehensions.[5] Using an estimated catch rate of 33%, the number crossing without detection would be 674,000 per year (2 successful entries for each 1 apprehended).

The rate of new illegal immigrants, combining both sources is 1,201,000 in FY 2015.

Total number of illegal immigrants[edit]

From 2005 to 2009, the number of people entering the U.S. illegally declined by nearly 67%, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, from 850,000 yearly average in the early 2000s to 300,000.[14]

In 2013, a Department of Homeland Security report estimating the size of the illegal immigrant population living in the U.S. said, "In summary, an estimated 11.4 million unauthorized immigrants were living in the United States in January 2012 compared to 11.5 million in January 2011. These results suggest little to no change in the unauthorized immigrant population from 2011 to 2012."[15] Additionally, 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants were estimated to be living in the U.S. in 2014.[16]

Narrowing the discussion to only Mexican nationals, a 2015 study performed by demographers of the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of New Hampshire found that immigration from Mexico; both legal and illegal, peaked in 2003 and that from the period between 2003 and 2007 to the period of 2008 to 2012, immigration from Mexico decreased 57%. The dean of the College of Public Policy of the University of Texas at San Antonio, Rogelio Saenz, states that lower birth rates and the growing economy in Mexico slowed emigration, creating more jobs for Mexicans. Saenz also states that Mexican immigrants are no longer coming to find jobs but to flee from violence, noting that the majority of those escaping crime "are far more likely to be naturalized U.S. citizens".[17]

Children of illegal immigrants[edit]

The Pew Hispanic Center determined that according to an analysis of Census Bureau data about 8 percent of children born in the United States in 2008—about 340,000—were offspring of illegal immigrants. (The report classifies a child as offspring of illegal immigrants if either parent is unauthorized.) In total, 4 million U.S.-born children of illegal immigrant parents resided in this country in 2009 (alongside 1.1 million foreign-born children of illegal immigrant parents).[18] These infants are, according to the longstanding Administrative interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, American citizens from birth. Congress has never legislated, nor the Supreme Court specifically ruled on whether babies born to visiting foreign nationals are eligible for automatic US Citizenship. These children are sometimes referred to as anchor babies by those who want Congress to clarify eligibility for automatic citizenship.[19]

The majority of children that are born to parents who are illegal migrants fail to graduate from high school, averaging two fewer years of school than children of legal immigrants. Reasons for this under-performance are thought to include stress, pressure to work at a younger age, and not having the economic resources needed for higher education.[20]

Surge in immigration by unaccompanied children from Central America[edit]

In 2014–16 many children unaccompanied by their parents came to the United States from Central America. Most simply crossed the Rio Grande and turned themselves into to the Border Patrol, relying on the belief[21] that United States law made special provision for illegal immigrants who were children.

The provisions of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which specifies safe repatriation of unaccompanied children (other than those trafficked for sex or forced labor) from countries which do not have a common border with the United States, such as the nations of Central America other than Mexico, made expeditious deportation of the large number of children from Central America who came to the United States in 2014 difficult and expensive, prompting a call by President Barack Obama for an emergency appropriation of $4 billion[22] and resulting in discussions by the Department of Justice and Congress of how to interpret or revise the law in order to expedite handling large numbers of children under the act.[21] One solution, proposed by the Department of Justice in July 2014, is to move cases involving children and families with children to the head of the docket in immigration court.[23] It is unknown how many of these children were repatriated, and how many were released into the interior.

Present-day countries of origin[edit]

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the countries of origin for the largest numbers of illegal immigrants are as follows (latest of 2009):[13]

Country of origin Raw number Percent of total Percent change 2000 to 2009
Mexico 6,650,000 62% +42%
El Salvador 530,000 5% +25%
Guatemala 480,000 4% +65%
Honduras 320,000 3% +95%
Philippines 270,000 2% +33%
India 200,000 2% +64%
Korea 200,000 2% +14%
Ecuador 170,000 2% +55%
Brazil 150,000 1% +49%
China 120,000 1% −37%
Other 1,650,000 15% −17%

The Urban Institute also estimates "between 65,000 and 75,000 Canadians currently live illegally in the United States."[24]


The categories of foreign-born people in the United States are:

  • US citizens born outside the United States (naturalized)[25]
  • US citizens born as citizens outside the United States
  • Foreign-born non-citizens with current status to reside and/or work in the US (documented)[26]
  • Foreign-born non-citizens in the United States that are prohibited from entry (inadmissible)[27]

Non-citizens residing in the United States are further subdivided into immigrants and non-immigrants. Immigrants are foreign-born non-citizens that are able to apply for citizenship. Non-immigrants are foreign-born non-citizens who are not able to apply for citizenship, which includes diplomatic staff, temporary workers, students, tourists, etc.[citation needed]

Non-citizen residence can become illegal in one of four ways: by unauthorized entry, by failure of the employer to pay worker documentation fees, by staying beyond the expiration date of a visa or other authorization, or by violating the terms of legal entry.[28][not in citation given][29][not in citation given]

Illegal entry[edit]

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 6–7 million immigrants came to the United States via illegal entry, accounting for probably a little over half of the total population of those residing in the U.S. illegally.[29] There are an estimated half million illegal entries into the United States each year.[29][30]

A common means of border crossing is to hire people smugglers to help them across the border. Those operating on the U.S.-Mexico border are known informally as coyotajes (coyotes).[30]

Visa overstay[edit]

According to Pew, between 4 and 5.5 million foreigners entered the United States with a legal visa, accounting for between 33–50% of the total population.[29] A tourist or traveler is considered a "visa overstay" once he or she remains in the United States after the time of admission has expired. The time of admission varies greatly from traveler to traveler depending on the visa class into which they were admitted. Visa overstays tend to be somewhat more educated and better off financially than those who entered the country illegally.[31]

To help track visa overstayers the US-VISIT (United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) program collects and retains biographic, travel, and biometric information, such as photographs and fingerprints, of foreign nationals seeking entry into the United States. It also requires electronic readable passports containing this information.

Visa overstayers mostly enter with tourist or business visas.[29] In 1994, more than half[32] of illegal immigrants were Visa overstayers whereas in 2006, about 45% of illegal immigrants were Visa overstayers.[33]

Those who leave the United States after overstaying their visa for more than 180 days but less than one year, leave and then attempt to apply for readmission will face a three-year ban which will not allow them to re-enter the U.S. for that period. Those who leave the United States after overstaying their visa for a period of one year or longer, leave and then attempt to apply for readmission will face a ten-year ban.[34]

Border Crossing Card violation[edit]

A smaller number of illegal immigrants entered the United States legally using the Border Crossing Card, a card that authorizes border crossings into the U.S. for a set amount of time. Border Crossing Card entry accounts for the vast majority of all registered non-immigrant entry into the United States—148 million out of 179 million total—but there is little hard data as to how much of the illegal immigrant population entered in this way. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates the number at around 250,000–500,000.[29]


The United States is viewed worldwide as an extremely desirable destination by would-be migrants. International polls by the Gallup organization have found that more than 165 million adults in 148 foreign countries would, if they could, move to the US, making it the most desired-destination country for migrants worldwide.[35] There is only one true cause for illegal immigration and that is non US citizens circumnavigating the legal immigration process by entering the US illegally. There are however numerous incentives which draw foreigners to the US. Most illegal immigrants who come to America come for better opportunities for employment, a much greater degree of freedom, avoidance of political oppression, the opportunity to rejoin with loved ones, for the prospect of providing better lives for themselves and their family, and for the educational and medical services benefits.[36]

Causes by region[edit]

In general illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America come for economic reasons, but also sometimes due to political oppression.[36]

From Asia, they come for economic reasons but some come involuntarily as indentured servants or sex slaves.[36] From Sub-Saharan Africa, they come for economic activities and there is some chance of slave trade.[36] From Eastern Europe, they come for economic activities and to rejoin family already in the United States. However, there are also some who come involuntarily who work in the sex industry.[36]

Economic incentives[edit]

Economic reasons are the most popular motivation for people to illegally immigrate to the United States.[8][9][10] United States employers hire illegal immigrants at wages substantially higher than they could earn in their native countries.[9] A study of illegal immigrants from Mexico in the 1978 harvest season in Oregon showed that they earned six times what they could have earned in Mexico, and even after deducting the costs of the seasonal migration and the additional expense of living in the United States, their net U.S. earnings were three times their Mexican alternative.[10] In the 1960s and early 70s, Mexico's high fertility rate caused a large increase in population. While Mexican population growth has slowed, the large numbers of people born in the 1960s and 70s are now of working age looking for jobs.[10]

According to Judith Gans, Immigration Policy Program Manager at the University of Arizona, United States employers are pushed to hire illegal migrants for three main reasons—global economic change, the inadequacy of channels for legal economic migration, and ineffective employer sanctions.[9] Global economic change is one cause for illegal immigration because information and transportation technologies now foster internationalized production, distribution and consumption, and labor. This has encouraged many countries to open their economies to outside investment, then increasing the number of low-skilled workers participating in global labor markets and making low-skilled labor markets all more competitive.[9] This and the fact that developed countries have shifted from manufacturing to knowledge-based economies, have realigned economic activity around the world.[9] Labor has become more international as individuals migrate seeking work, despite governmental attempts to control this migration.[9] Because the United States education system creates relatively few people who either lack a high school diploma or who hold PhDs, there is a shortage of workers needed to fulfill seasonal low-skilled jobs as well as certain high-skilled jobs. To fill these gaps, the United States immigration system attempts to compensate for these shortages by providing for temporary immigration by farm workers and seasonal low-skilled workers, and for permanent immigration by high-skilled workers.[9] The third cause of illegal immigration—the ineffectiveness of current employer sanctions for illegal hiring—allows migrants who are in the country illegally to easily find jobs. There are three reasons for this ineffectiveness—the absence of reliable mechanisms for verifying employment eligibility, inadequate funding of interior immigration enforcement, and the absence of political will due to labor needs to the United States economy.[9] For example, it is unlawful to knowingly hire an illegal immigrant, but according to Judith Gans, there are no reliable mechanisms in place for employers to verify that the immigrants' papers are authentic.[9]

Another reason for the large numbers of illegal immigrants present in the United States is the termination of the bracero program. This bi-national program between the U.S. and Mexico existed from 1942 to 1964 to supply qualified Mexican laborers as guest workers to harvest fruits and vegetables in the United States. During World War II, the program benefited the U.S. war effort by replacing citizens' labor in agriculture to serve as soldiers overseas. The program was designed to provide legal flows of qualified laborers to the U.S. Many Mexicans deemed unqualified for the program nonetheless migrated illegally to the United States to work. In doing that they broke both U.S. and Mexican law.[37] Many legal temporary workers became illegal when they chose to continue working in the U.S. after this program ended. The change in law was not accompanied by a change in economic incentives for Mexican workers and the American growers.[10]

Channels for legal migration[edit]

The United States immigration system provides channels for legal, permanent economic migration, especially for high-skilled workers. For low-skilled workers, temporary or seasonal legal immigration is easier to acquire.[9] The United States immigration system rests on three pillars: family reunification, provision of scarce labor (as in agricultural and specific high-skilled worker sectors), and protecting American workers from competition with foreign workers.[9] The current system sets an overall limit of 675,000 permanent immigrants each year; this limit does not apply to spouses, unmarried minor children or parents of U.S. citizens.[38] Outside of this number for permanent immigrants, 480,000 visas are allotted for those under the family-preference rules and 140,000 are allocated for employment-related preferences.[38] The current system and low number of visas available make it difficult for low-skilled workers to legally and permanently enter the country to work, so illegal entry becomes the way migrants respond to the lure of jobs with higher wages than what they would be able to find in their current country.[9]

Chain immigration[edit]

According to demographer Jeffery Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center, the flow of Mexicans to the U.S. has produced a "network effect"—furthering immigration as Mexicans moved to join relatives already in the U.S.[39]

Further incentives[edit]

Lower costs of transportation, communication and information has facilitated illegal migration. Mexican nationals, in particular, have a very low cost of migration and can easily cross the border. Even if it requires more than one attempt, they have a very low probability of being detected and then deported once they have entered the country.[10]

International controversies[edit]

Mexican federal and state government assistance[edit]

The US Department of Homeland Security and some advocacy groups have criticized a program of the government of the state of Yucatán and that of a federal Mexican agency directed to Mexicans migrating to and residing in the United States. They state that the assistance includes advice on how to get across the U.S. border illegally, where to find healthcare, enroll their children in public schools, and send money to Mexico. The Mexican federal government also issues identity cards to Mexicans living outside of Mexico.[40]

  • In 2005, the government of Yucatán produced a handbook and DVD about the risks and implications of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The guide told immigrants where to find health care, how to get their kids into U.S. schools, and how to send money home. Officials in Yucatán said the guide is a necessity to save lives but some American groups accused the government of encouraging illegal immigration.[41]
  • In 2005, the Mexican government was criticized for distributing a comic book which offers tips to illegal emigrants to the United States.[42] That comic book recommends to illegal immigrants, once they have safely crossed the border, "Don't call attention to yourself.... Avoid loud parties. ... Don't become involved in fights." The Mexican government defends the guide as an attempt to save lives. "It's kind of like illegal immigration for dummies," said the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, Mark Krikorian. "Promoting safe illegal immigration is not the same as arguing against it". The comic book does state on its last page that the Mexican Government does not promote illegal crossing at all and only encourages visits to the US with all required documentation.[42]

Legal issues[edit]

Number of United States immigration enforcement actions, 1930 to 2015 (Data from Dept. of Homeland Security)

Immigration laws[edit]

Aliens can be classified as unlawfully present for one of three reasons: entering without authorization or inspection, staying beyond the authorized period after legal entry, or violating the terms of legal entry.[43]

Section 1325 in Title 8 of the United States Code, "Improper entry of alien", provides for a fine, imprisonment, or both for any noncitizen who:[44]

  1. enters or attempts to enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration agents, or
  2. eludes examination or inspection by immigration agents, or
  3. attempts to enter or obtains entry to the United States by a willfully false or misleading representation or the willful concealment of a material fact.

The maximum prison term is 6 months for the first offense and 2 years for any subsequent offense. In addition to the above criminal fines and penalties, civil fines may also be imposed.

Arizona passed immigration enforcement law Arizona SB 1070 in April 2010, which was at the time the "toughest bill on illegal immigration" in the United States,[45] and was challenged by the Department of Justice as encroaching on powers reserved by the United States Constitution to the Federal Government.[45] On July 28, 2010, United States District Court Judge Susan Bolton issued a preliminary injunction affecting the most controversial parts of the law, including the section that required police officers to check a person's immigration status after a person had been involved in another act or situation which resulted in police activity.[46] In 2016, Arizona reached a settlement with a number of immigrants rights organizations, including the National Immigration Law Center, overturning this aspect of the bill. The practice had led to racial profiling of Latinos and other minorities.[47]

Anyone who is on American soil, whether they are a visitor, or a resident with or without legal residency status, is protected by the United States Constitution. This means anyone who is living or staying in the United States has the right to remain silent, a right to trial by jury and a right to legal representation.[48] Undocumented persons also have the right to attend school.[49] In California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia, illegal immigrants may apply for and receive driver's licenses. [50]


Illegal immigrants are generally not allowed to receive state or local public benefits, which includes professional licenses.[51] However, in 2013 the California State Legislature passed laws allowing illegal immigrants to obtain professional licenses. On February 1, 2014. Sergio C. Garcia became the first illegal immigrant to be admitted to the State Bar of California since 2008, when applicants were first required to list citizenship status on bar applications.[52]

Audits of employment records in 2009 at American Apparel, a prominent Los Angeles garment manufacturer, by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency uncovered discrepancies in the documentation of about 25 percent of the company's workers. This technique of auditing employment records originated during the George W. Bush presidency and has been continued under President Barack Obama. It may result in deportations should definite evidence of illegality be uncovered, but at American Apparel the audit resulted only in the termination of employees who could not resolve discrepancies. Most fired workers, some of whom had worked a decade at the plant, reported that they would seek other employment within the United States.[citation needed]

This technique of enforcement is much less disruptive than mass raids at workplaces. The Obama administration has pointed out that they do not follow the Bush administration pattern of raids with a mass roundup of workers. That method had been criticized for disrupting businesses, and breaking up immigrant families. However, the chief executive of American Apparel said of the new policy: "No matter how we choose to define or label them, illegal immigrants are hard-working, taxpaying workers."[53]


Federal law enforcement agencies, specifically U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the United States Border Patrol (USBP), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), enforce the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (INA), and to some extent, the United States Armed Forces, state and local law enforcement agencies, and civilians and civilian groups guard the border.

At border[edit]

In December 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to build a barrier along parts of the border not already protected by barriers. A later vote in the United States Senate on May 17, 2006, included a plan to block 860 miles (1,380 km) of the border with vehicle barriers and triple-layer fencing along with granting an "earned path to citizenship" to the 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and roughly doubling legal immigration (from their 1970s levels).[citation needed] In 2007, Congress approved a plan calling for more fencing along the Mexican border, with funds for approximately 700 miles (1,100 km) of new fencing.[citation needed]

At workplace[edit]

Before 2007, immigration authorities alerted employers of mismatches between reported employees' Social Security cards and the actual names of the card holders. On September 1, 2007, a federal judge halted this practice of alerting employers of card mismatches.[54]

At times illegal hiring has not been prosecuted aggressively: between 1999 and 2003, according to The Washington Post, "work-site enforcement operations were scaled back 95 percent by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.[55] Major employers of illegal immigrants have included:

  • Wal-Mart: In 2005, Wal-Mart agreed to pay $11 million to settle a federal investigation that found hundreds of illegal immigrants were hired by Wal-Mart's cleaning contractors.[56]
  • Swift & Co.: In December 2006, in the largest such crackdown in American history, U.S. federal immigration authorities raided Swift & Co. meat-processing plants in six U.S. states, arresting about 1,300 illegal immigrant employees.[57]
  • Tyson Foods: This company was accused of actively importing illegal labor for its chicken packing plants; at trial, however, the jury acquitted the company after evidence was presented that Tyson went beyond mandated government requirements in demanding documentation for its employees.[58]
  • Gebbers Farms: In December 2009, U.S. immigration authorities forced this Brewster, Washington, farm known for its fruit orchards to fire more than 500 illegal workers, mostly immigrants from Mexico. Some were working with false social security cards and other false identification.[59]
El Paso (top) and Ciudad Juárez (bottom) seen from earth orbit; the Rio Grande is the thin line separating the two cities through the middle of the photograph.


About 31,000 people who are not American citizens are held in immigration detention on any given day,[60] including children, in over 200 detention centers, jails, and prisons nationwide.[61] The United States government held more than 300,000 people in immigration detention in 2007 while deciding whether to deport them.[62]


Deportations of immigrants, which are also referred to as removals, may be issued when immigrants are found to be in violation of US immigration laws. Deportations may be imposed on a person who is neither native-born nor a naturalized citizen of the United States.[63] Deportation proceedings are also referred to as removal proceedings and are typically initiated by the Department of Homeland Security. The United States issues deportations for various reasons which include security, protection of resources, and protection of jobs.

Deportations from the United States increased by more than 60 percent from 2003 to 2008, with Mexicans accounting for nearly two-thirds of those deported.[64] Under the Obama administration, deportations have increased to record levels beyond the level reached by the George W. Bush administration with a projected 400,000 deportations in 2010, 10 percent above the deportation rate of 2008 and 25 percent above 2007.[65] Fiscal year 2011 saw 396,906 deportations, the largest number in the history of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; of those, about 55% had been convicted of crimes or misdemeanors, including:[66]

By the end of 2012, as many people had been deported during the first four years of the Obama presidency as were deported during the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush;[67] the number of deportations under Obama totalled 2.5 million by the end of 2015.[68]

The AEDPA and IIRIRA Acts of 1996[edit]

Two major pieces of legislation passed in 1996 had a significant effect on illegal immigration and deportations in the United States. The two laws were the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). These were introduced following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, both of which were terrorist attacks that claimed American lives. These two acts changed the way criminal cases of lawful permanent residents were handled, resulting in increased deportations from the United States.[69] Before the 1996 deportation laws there were two steps that lawful permanent noncitizen residents who were convicted of crimes went through. The first step determined whether or not the person was deportable. The second step determined if that person should or shouldn't be deported. Before the 1996 deportation laws, the second step prevented many permanent residents from being deported by allowing for their cases to be reviewed in full before issuing deportations. External factors were taken into consideration such as the effect deportation would have on a person's family members and a person's connections with their country of origin. Under this system permanent residents were able to be relieved of deportation if their situation deemed it unnecessary. The 1996 laws however issued many deportations under the first step, without going through the second step, resulting in a great increase in deportations.

One significant change that resulted from the new laws was the definition of the term aggravated felony. Being convicted of a crime that is categorized as an aggravated felony results in mandatory detention and deportation. The new definition of aggravated felony includes crimes such as shoplifting, which would be a misdemeanor in many states. The new laws have categorized a much wider range of crimes as aggravated felonies. The effect of this has been a large increase in permanent residents facing mandatory deportation from the United States without the opportunity to plea for relief. The 1996 deportation laws have received a lot of criticism for their curtailing of residents' rights.[69]

The USA Patriot Act[edit]

The USA Patriot Act was passed seven weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The purpose of the act was to give the government more power to act upon suspicion of terrorist activity. The new governmental powers granted by this act included a significant expansion of the conditions in which illegal immigrants could be deported based on suspicion of terrorist activity. The act gave the government the power to deport individuals based not only on plots or acts of terrorism, but on affiliations with certain organizations. The Secretary of State designated specific organizations foreign terrorist organizations before the USA Patriot Act was implemented. Organizations on this list were deemed dangerous because they were actively involved in terrorist activity. The Patriot Act created a type of organization called designated organizations. The Secretary of State and Attorney General were given the power to designate any organization that supported terrorist activity on any level. The act also allows for deportation based on involvement in undesignated organizations that were deemed suspicious.[70]

Under the USA Patriot Act the Attorney General was granted the power to "certify" illegal immigrants that pose a threat to national security. Once an illegal immigrant is certified they must be taken into custody and face mandatory detention which will result in a criminal charge or release. The Patriot Act has been criticized for violating the Fifth Amendment right to due process. Under the Patriot Act, an illegal immigrant is not granted the opportunity for a hearing before given certification.[71]

Complications of birthright citizen children and illegal immigrant parents[edit]

Complications in deportation efforts ensue when parents are illegal immigrants but their children are birthright citizens. Federal appellate courts have upheld the refusal by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to stay the deportation of illegal immigrants merely on the grounds that they have U.S.-citizen, minor children.[72] There are some 3.1 million United States citizen children with at least one illegal immigrant parent as of 2005; at least 13,000 children had one or both parents deported in the years 2005–2007.[73]

DREAM Act[edit]

The DREAM Act (acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) was an American legislative proposal for a multi-phase process for illegal immigrants in the United States that would first grant conditional residency and upon meeting further qualifications, permanent residency. The bill was first introduced in the Senate on August 1, 2001 and has since been reintroduced several times but did not pass. It was intended to stop the deportation of people who had arrived as children and had grown up in the U.S. The Act would give lawful permanent residency under certain conditions which include: good moral character, enrollment in a secondary or post-secondary education program, and having lived in the United States at least 5 years. Those in opposition of the DREAM Act believe that it encourages illegal immigration.[74]

Although the DREAM Act has not been enacted by federal legislation, a number of its provisions were implemented by a memorandum issued by Janet Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration. To be eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), one must show that they were under 31 years of age as of June 15, 2012; that they came to the United States before their 16th birthday; that they have continuously resided in the United States from June 15, 2007, until the present; that they were physically present in the United States on June 15, 2012, and at the time they applied for DACA; that they were not authorized to be in the United States on June 15, 2012; that they are currently in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, have obtained a general education development (GED) certificate, or are an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States; and that they have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.[75]

Deportation trends[edit]

United States immigration enforcement actions, 1995-2015

There have been two major periods of mass deportations in U.S. history. In the Mexican Repatriation of the 1930s, through mass deportations and forced migration, an estimated 500,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were deported or coerced into emigrating, in what Mae Ngai, an immigration historian at the University of Chicago, has described as "a racial removal program".[76] The majority of those removed were U.S. citizens.[76] Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., cosponsor of a U.S. House Bill that calls for a commission to study the "deportation and coerced emigration" of U.S. citizens and legal residents, has expressed concerns that history could repeat itself, and that should illegal immigration be made into a felony, this could prompt a "massive deportation of U.S. citizens".[76]

In Operation Wetback in 1954, the United States and the Mexican governments cooperated to deport illegal immigrant Mexicans in the U.S. to Mexico. This cooperation was part of more harmonious Mexico-United States relations starting in World War II. Joint border policing operations were established in the 1940s when the Bracero Program (1942–1964) brought qualified Mexicans to the U.S. as guest workers. Many Mexicans who did not qualify for the program migrated illegally. According to Mexican law, Mexican workers needed authorization to accept employment in the U.S. As Mexico industrialized post-World War II in what was called the Mexican Miracle, Mexico wanted to preserve "one of its greatest natural resources, a cheap and flexible labor supply."[77] In some cases along with their U.S. born children (who are citizens according to U.S. law),[78] some illegal immigrants, fearful of potential violence as police swarmed through Mexican American barrios throughout the southeastern states, stopping "Mexican-looking" citizens on the street and asking for identification, fled to Mexico.[78]

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act that gave amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants in the country.[41][79]

A direct effect of the deportation laws of 1996 and the Patriot Act has been a dramatic increase in deportations. Prior to these acts deportations had remained at about an average of 20,000 per year. Between 1990 and 1995 deportations had increased to about an average of 40,000 a year. From 1996 to 2005 the yearly average had increased to over 180,000. In the year 2005 the number of deportations reached 208,521 with less than half being deported under criminal grounds.[80] According to a June 2013 report published by the Washington Office on Latin America, dangerous deportation practices are on the rise and pose a serious threat to the safety of the migrants being deported. These practices include repatriating migrants to border cities with high levels of drug-related violence and criminal activity, night deportations (approximately 1 in 5 migrants reports being deported between the hours of 10pm and 5am), and "lateral repatriations", or the practice of moving migrants from the region where they were detained to areas hundreds of miles away.[81] These practices increase the risk of gangs and organized criminal groups preying upon the newly arrived migrants.

In 2013, deportation prioritization guidance used by Immigration and Customs enforcement, was extended to Customs and Border Protection, under the Obama Administration's prosecutorial discretion plan.[82] This has led to a reduction of the number of deportations of those who are in "non-priority" categories.[83]

According to survey by the Associated Press conducted in August 2014, The Homeland Security Department was on pace to remove the fewest number of immigrants since 2007. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for deportations, sent home 258,608 immigrants between the start of the budget year—October 1, 2013. and July 28, 2014—a decrease of nearly 20 percent from the same period in 2013, when 320,167 people were removed. Obama announced earlier in 2014 plans to slow down deportations; recently these were put on hold until the November 2014 election.[84]

According to The Washington Post,[85] Rajeev K. Goyle, of the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank, says he conducted a study to respond to officials who have advocated mass deportations. This study claims that the cost of forcibly removing most of the nation's estimated 10 million illegal immigrants is $41 billion a year.

Military involvement[edit]

In 1995, the United States Congress considered an exemption from the Posse Comitatus Act, which generally prohibits direct participation of U.S. soldiers and airmen (and sailors and Marines by policy of the Department of the Navy) in domestic law enforcement activities, such as search, seizure, and arrests.[86]

In 1997, Marines shot and killed 18-year-old U.S. citizen Esequiel Hernández Jr[87] while on a mission to interdict smuggling and illegal immigration near the border community of Redford, Texas. The Marines observed the high school student from concealment while he was tending his family's goats in the vicinity of their ranch. At one point, Hernandez raised his .22-caliber rifle and fired shots in the direction of the concealed soldiers. He was subsequently tracked for 20 minutes then shot and killed.[88][89] In reference to the incident, military lawyer Craig T. Trebilcock argues, "the fact that armed military troops were placed in a position with the mere possibility that they would have to use force to subdue civilian criminal activity reflects a significant policy shift by the executive branch away from the posse comitatus doctrine."[90] The killing of Hernandez led to a congressional review[91] and an end to a nine-year-old policy of the military aiding the Border Patrol.[92]

After the September 11 attacks in 2001, the United States again considered placing soldiers along the U.S.–Mexico border as a security measure.[93] In May 2006, President George W. Bush announced plans to use the National Guard to strengthen enforcement of the US-Mexico Border from illegal immigrants,[94] emphasizing that Guard units "will not be involved in direct law enforcement activities".[95] Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez said in an interview with a Mexico City radio station, "If we see the National Guard starting to directly participate in detaining people ... we would immediately start filing lawsuits through our consulates."[96] The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called on the President not to deploy troops to deter illegal immigrants, and stated that a "deployment of National Guard troops violates the spirit of the Posse Comitatus Act".[97] According to the State of the Union address in January 2007,[98] more than 6,000 National Guard members have been sent to the border to supplement the Border Patrol,[99] costing in excess of $750 million.[100]

Sanctuary cities[edit]

Sanctuary Cities in the United States*
  County or county equivalent either contains a municipality that is a sanctuary for illegal immigrants, or is one itself
  State has legislation in place that establishes a statewide sanctuary for illegal immigrants
  All county jails in the state do not honor ICE detainers
  Alongside statewide legislation or policies establishing sanctuary for illegal immigrants, county contains a municipality that has policy or has taken action to further provide sanctuary to illegal immigrants
*Map is based on data published by ICE in a February 2017 report outlining jurisdictions that have declined ICE detainers.

Several U.S. cities have instructed their own law enforcement personnel and civilian employees not to notify or cooperate with the federal government when they become aware of illegal immigrants living within their jurisdiction.

There are 300 cities, counties, and states who provide sanctuary to illegal immigrants.[101] Cities include Washington, D.C.; New York City; Los Angeles; Chicago; San Francisco;[102] San Diego; Austin; Salt Lake City; Dallas; Detroit; Honolulu; Houston; Jersey City; Minneapolis; Miami; Denver; Aurora, Colorado; Baltimore; Seattle; Portland, Oregon; Portland, Maine; and Senath, Missouri, have become "sanctuary cities", having adopted ordinances refraining from stopping or questioning individuals for the sole purpose of determining their immigration status.[103]

Opponents say the measures violate federal law as the cities are in effect creating their own immigration policy, an area of law which only Congress has authority to alter.[104]

Scholars have tagged these so-called "don't tell" measures as "obvious targets for express preemption" given the apparent conflict between "don't tell" policies and the restrictions in Sections 434 of the "Welfare Reform Act" and Section 642 of the "Immigration Reform Act" that expressly forbid restraints on communications with federal officials, including the sharing of information relating to people's illegal immigration status.

Attacks on illegal immigrants[edit]

According to a 2006 report by the Anti-Defamation League, white supremacists and other extremists were engaging in a growing number of assaults against legal and illegal immigrants and those perceived to be immigrants.[105][needs update] Sexual assault of migrants from Latin America to the United States is also a form of attack on migrants perpetrated by smugglers, gang members, government officials, bandits, or other migrants.

Community-based involvement[edit]

The No More Deaths organization offers food, water, and medical aid to migrants crossing the desert regions of the American Southwest in an effort to reduce the increasing number of deaths along the border.[106]

In 2014, 'Dreamer Moms' began protesting, hoping that President Obama will grant them legal status. On November 12, 2014, there was a hunger strike near the White House undertaken by the group Dreamer Moms. On November 21, 2014, Obama provided 5 million illegal immigrants legal status because he says that mass deportation "would be both impossible and contrary to our character".[107]



Wages and employment[edit]

A study by economist Giovanni Peri concluded that between 1990 and 2004, immigrant workers raised the wages of native born workers in general by 4%, while more recent immigrants suppressed wages of previous immigrants.[108]

A 2002 study of the effects of illegal immigration and border enforcement on wages in border communities from 1990 to 1997 found little impact of border enforcement on wages in U.S. border cities, and concluded that their findings were consistent with two hypotheses, "border enforcement has a minimal impact on illegal immigration, and illegal immigration from Mexico has a minimal impact on wages in U.S. border cities".[109]

Taxes and social services[edit]

Illegal immigrants are estimated to pay in about $7 billion per year into Social Security.[110]

A paper in the peer reviewed Tax Lawyer journal from the American Bar Association asserts that illegal immigrants contribute more in taxes than they cost in social services.[111] However, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reviewed 29 reports published over 15 years to evaluate the impact of illegal immigrants on the budgets of state and local governments, and found that the tax revenues that illegal immigrants generate for state and local governments do not offset the total cost of services provided to those immigrants, though the report speculated that the impact of illegal immigrants on state and local budgets was likely to be modest.[112]


Around 2005, an increasing number of banks saw illegal immigrants as an untapped resource for growing their own revenue stream and contended that providing illegal immigrants with mortgages would help revitalize local communities, with many community banks providing home loans for illegal immigrants. At the time, critics complained that this practice would reward and encourage illegal immigration, as well as contribute to an increase in predatory lending practices. One banking consultant said that banks which were planning to offer mortgages to illegal immigrants were counting on the fact that immigration enforcement was very lax, with deportation unlikely for anyone who had not committed a crime.[113]

Law enforcement expenses[edit]

Apprehension and deportation[edit]

Border control uses the latest technology to help capture illegal immigrants in the process of crossing, sometimes detain/prosecute, and send them back over the border. According to the US Department of Homeland Security and the Border Patrol Enforcement Integrated Database, apprehensions have increased from 955,310 in 2002 to 1,159,802 in 2004. "But fewer than 4 percent of apprehended migrants were actually detained and prosecuted for illegal entry, partly because it costs $90 a day to keep them in detention facilities and bed space is very limited. For the remainder of the apprehended migrants, if they are willing to sign a form attesting that they are voluntarily repatriating themselves, they are simply bussed to a gate on the border, where they re-enter Mexico."[114][verification needed] "During the summer of 2004, the U.S. government pressured the Mexican government into accepting 'deep repatriation' of as many as 300 apprehended migrants per day to six cities in central and southern Mexico.

Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Management[edit]

The increasing number of illegal immigrants living within the borders of the United States has also placed an increased strain on the Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Management systems. It is impossible for organizations within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to accurately prepare for a disaster if a significant portion of the affected area's population are illegal immigrants, and therefore unaccounted for. One organization in particular, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, (FEMA) has had numerous issues when dealing with unexpected increases in the number of people requesting assistance. The appropriate amount of funding, resources, and manpower is based on the population in an area. Adequate care will not be dispatched due to the growing number of illegal immigrants living in a disaster area. Essentially, relief service agencies must be accountable for people who are theoretically not there. It is essential for public health preparedness and emergency management personnel, to have an accurate depiction of the number of people that will require assistance following an emergency. Illegal immigrants make this task much more difficult and burdensome than necessary.

Illegal immigrants who do not have a basic understanding of the English language exacerbate the problem further. Because of this break in communication, many people will not be aware of where to receive aid, how to secure assistance, if and when to evacuate, or even the fact that they may be in immediate danger. "Failures in communication not only endanger limited English proficient individuals and their families but also threaten to put into harm's way first responders tasked with rescuing people". Difficulties in the past include, "connecting victims and evacuees with major disaster relief providers due to the providers' lack of linguistically and culturally competent staff; difficulties securing adequate funding for disaster relief operations; poor communication with FEMA, Red Cross, and other major disaster relief providers".[115][full citation needed]

Furthering complications is the fact that most illegal immigrants have an innate distrust of the American government, or simply fear retribution from being identified as being an illegal immigrant residing in America. This is despite the fact that noncash emergency assistance is mandated, by law, to be given to victims of a disaster regardless of citizenship by FEMA. Illegal immigrants without documentation also cause problems in regards to the distribution of assistance to victims. It would be nearly impossible, aside from using biometrics, to determine which illegal immigrant has and has not received assistance. These illegal immigrants may repeatedly go and take more assistance than what is needed thus making it more difficult for others in need to receive assistance. Unless a trust can be built between the government and illegal immigrants, "future disasters could result in grave human tragedy, public health catastrophes, and national embarrassment, particularly if the disaster is a pandemic or bioterrorism attack".[116][full citation needed]

As a result of the increasing number of people in the United States who do not speak English, several laws and bills have been established in order to ensure their safety. Although many of these laws were established for legal citizens who speak little or no English, much of what they discuss now applies to illegal immigrants. In 2000, The White House issued Presidential Executive Order 13166, "which requires that federal agencies work to ensure that federally funded programs provide meaningful access to limited English proficient applicants and beneficiaries. It also directs federal agencies to examine the services they conduct, identify any need for services among those with limited English proficiency, and develop and implement a plan to provide those services to ensure that limited English proficient persons have meaningful access to them".[116]


There is no empirical evidence that immigration, including illegal immigration, increases crime in the United States.[117][118] Most studies have shown that illegal immigrants tend to commit less crime than natives.[119] For immigration in general, a majority of studies in the U.S. have found lower crime rates among immigrants than among non-immigrants, and that higher concentrations of immigrants are associated with lower crime rates.[120][121][122][123][124][125][126][127][128][129][130][131][132][133][134][135][136][137][138][139][140] Some research even suggests that increases in immigration may partly explain the reduction in the U.S. crime rate.[141][142][143][144][145][146] Although the assertion that deportable illegal immigrants are disproportionately likely to commit violent crime is common in America, a 2008 study found no evidence that this was actually the case.[147] A 2016 study finds no link between illegal immigrant populations and violent crime, although there is a small but significant association between illegal immigrants and drug-related crime.[148] A 2017 study found that "Increased undocumented immigration was significantly associated with reductions in drug arrests, drug overdose deaths, and DUI arrests, net of other factors."[149]

Research finds that Secure Communities, an immigration enforcement program which led to a quarter of a million of detentions (when the study was published; November 2014), had no observable impact on the crime rate.[150] A 2015 study found that the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which legalized almost 3 million immigrants, led to "decreases in crime of 3-5 percent, primarily due to decline in property crimes, equivalent to 120,000-180,000 fewer violent and property crimes committed each year due to legalization".[151] According to one study, sanctuary cities — which adopt policies designed to not prosecute people solely for being an illegal alien — have no statistically meaningful effect on crime.[152]

Politicians and political activists have used examples of crime committed by individual immigrants to highlight the dangers they see in immigration policies. A good example of this was the highly publicized murder of Arizona rancher Rob Krentz in March 2010, suspected to have been committed by an illegal immigrant.[153] This murder became an important part of the narrative justifying the passage of Arizona SB1070 one of the nation's toughest state immigration laws. This murder provided a strong rallying cry for immigration opponents and called public attention to other crimes—notably property crimes—committed by foreign nationals during their border crossings into the U.S. Krentz had previously reported that illegal immigrants had done over $8 million in damage to his ranching operations during a five-year period,[154] and in the wake of his murder, interviews with his family and friends focused on similar crimes and break-ins committed by immigrants.[155] A few weeks later, Arizona passed Arizona SB1070.[156] The law's writers have defended Arizona's new illegal immigration law by opining that it is necessary to fight violent crime. Though admitting an increase in border-related violence, such as home invasions and kidnappings, many Arizona police chiefs, such as Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris,[157] have stated their disagreement with the law, arguing that it will distort police priorities.[158] Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, in an interview on Horizon, said it is "absolutely appropriate" for law enforcement officers to question people about their immigration status during a routine stop or investigation.[159] The law sparked protests in Arizona and elsewhere, as well as led to the boycott of Arizona by cities and communities nationwide.[160]

California has the largest immigrant population in the US, and immigrants (combined total of legal and illegal) are under represented among California prison inmates.[161] The most recent research indicates approximately 35% of the California population consists of immigrants, while immigrants represent 17% of the prison population. In fact, U.S. born adult men are incarcerated at a rate over two-and-a-half times greater than that of foreign-born men.[161] However, this does not separate the illegal versus legal immigrants.

Illegal immigrants avoid involvement in criminal activity to reduce interaction with law enforcement officials, and according to Tim Wadsworth, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, "[t]he suggestion that high levels of immigration may have been partially responsible for the drop in crime during the 1990s seems plausible."[162]

According to Edmonton and Smith in The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, "it is difficult to draw any strong conclusions on the association between immigration and crime".[163] Cities with large immigrant populations showed larger reductions in property and violent crime than cities without large immigrant populations.[164] Almost all of what is known about immigration and crime is from information on those in prison. Incarceration rates do not necessarily reflect differences in current crime rates.[163]

The Center for Immigration Studies in a 2009 report argued, "New government data indicate that immigrants have high rates of criminality, while older academic research found low rates. The overall picture of immigrants and crime remains confused due to a lack of good data and contrary information." It also criticized reports using data from the 2000 Census according to which 4% of prisoners were immigrants. Non-citizens often have a strong incentive to deny this in order to prevent deportation and there are also other problems. Some better but still uncertain methods have found that 20–22% of prisoners were immigrants. It also criticized studies looking at percentages of immigrants in a city and crime for only looking at overall crime and not immigrant crime as well as having other possible problems.[165]

As of 2010, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) under its "Secure Communities" project has identified 240,000 illegal immigrants convicted of crimes, according to Department of Homeland Security figures. Of those, about 30,000 have been deported, including 8,600 convicted of what the agency calls "the most egregious offenses.[166]

A few of the other reasons also cited for why the extent of illegal immigrants' criminal activities is unknown are as follows:

  • For many minor crimes, especially crimes involving juveniles, those who are apprehended are not arrested. Only a fraction of those who are arrested are ever brought to the courts for disposition.[163]
  • Many illegal immigrants who are apprehended by Border Patrol agents are voluntarily returned to their home countries and are not ordinarily tabulated in national crime statistics. If immigrants, whether illegal or legal, are apprehended entering the United States while committing a crime, they are usually charged under federal statutes and, if convicted, are sent to federal prisons. Throughout this entire process, immigrants may have a chance of deportation, or of sentencing that is different from that for a native-born person.[163]
  • We lack comprehensive information on whether arrested or jailed immigrants are illegal immigrants, nonimmigrants, or legal immigrants. Such information can be difficult to collect because immigrants may have a reason to provide false statements (if they reply that they are an illegal immigrant, they can be deported, for instance). The verification of the data is troublesome because it requires matching INS records with individuals who often lack documentation or present false documents.[163]
  • Noncitizens may have had fewer years residing in the United States than citizens, and thus less time in which to commit crimes and be apprehended.[163]

In 1999, law enforcement activities involving illegal immigrants in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas cost a combined total of more than $108 million. This cost did not include activities related to border enforcement. In San Diego County, the expense (over $50 million) was nine percent of the total county's budget for law enforcement that year.[167]

A study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas has found that while property-related crime rates have not been affected by increased immigration (both legal and illegal), in border counties there is a significant positive correlation between illegal immigration and violent crime, most likely due to extensive smuggling activity along the border.[168]

On August 6, 2008, an audit done by agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement found that 122 of the 637 jail inmates in the Lake County, Illinois, jail were of questionable immigration status. Of those 122 originally suspected, 75 were later ordered to face deportation proceedings by the ICE. According to Lake County sheriff Mark Curran, illegal immigrants were charged with half of the 14 murders in the county.[169]

The Arizona Department of Corrections reported in 2010 that illegal immigrants are over-represented in the state's prison population. In June 2010, illegal immigrants represented 14.8 percent of Arizona state prisoners, but accounted for 7 percent of the state's overall population according to the Department of Homeland Security. In addition, the data showed that illegal immigrants accounted for 40% of all the prisoners serving time in Arizona state prisons for kidnapping; 24% of those serving time for drug charges; and 13 percent of those serving time for murder.[170]

A US Justice Department report from 2009 indicated that one of the largest street gangs in the United States, Los Angeles-based 18th Street gang, has a membership of some 30,000 to 50,000 with 80% of them being illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Active in 44 cities in 20 states, its main source of income is street-level distribution of cocaine and marijuana and, to a lesser extent, heroin and methamphetamine. Gang members also commit assault, auto theft, carjacking, drive-by shootings, extortion, homicide, identification fraud, and robbery.[171]

Another prominent street gang, Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, with a membership of some 8,000 to 10,000 members in the US, is estimated to be predominantly composed of illegal immigrants (with some reporting up to 90%).[172][173] MS-13 members smuggle illicit drugs, primarily powder cocaine and marijuana, into the US and transport and distribute the drugs throughout the country. Some members also are involved in alien smuggling, assault, drive-by shootings, homicide, identity theft, prostitution operations, robbery, and weapons trafficking.[171] With over 3,000 members in Northern Virginia alone making it the largest gang in the region,[174] MS-13 has been targeted by the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force which reports that 40% of arrests from 2003–2008 were of illegal immigrants.[173][175] It is also reported that 71% of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) gang arrestees under "Operation Community Shield" in Northern Virginia from February 2005 to September 2007, were of EWI "Enter Without Inspection" status.[173]

Identity theft[edit]

Identity theft is sometimes committed by illegal immigrants who use social security numbers belonging to others, in order to obtain fake work documentation.[176] However, the US Supreme Court has ruled that illegal immigrants cannot be prosecuted for identity theft if they use "made-up" social security numbers that they do not know belong to someone else; to be guilty of identity theft with regard to social security numbers, they must know that the social security numbers that they use belong to others.[177]

Drug trafficking[edit]

According to proceedings from a 1997 meeting of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, "Through other violations of our immigration laws, Mexican drug cartels are able to extend their command and control into the United States. Drug smuggling fosters, subsidizes, and is dependent upon continued illegal immigration and alien smuggling."[178]

Drug cartels have been reported using illegal immigrants, sometimes armed, to cultivate marijuana within American National Forests, in California's Los Padres National Forest,[179][180] Tahoe National Forest,[181] Six Rivers National Forest,[182] and Sequoia National Forest,[183] as well as in Arizona,[184] Oregon,[185] and Colorado.[186]

Gang violence[edit]

As of 2005, Operation Community Shield had detained nearly fourteen hundred illegal immigrant gang members.[187]

Members from the Salvadoran gang MS-13 are believed by authorities to have established a smuggling ring in Matamoros, Mexico. This smuggling involved transporting illegal immigrants from foreign countries into the United States. MS-13 has shown extreme violence against Border Patrol security to "teach them a lesson".[188] "Mexican alien smugglers plan to pay violent gang members and smuggle them and drugs into the United States to murder Border Patrol agents, according to a confidential Department of Homeland Security memo obtained by the Daily Bulletin."[189]


Waves of illegal immigrants are taking a heavy toll on U.S. public lands along the Mexican border, federal officials say.[190] Mike Coffeen, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Tucson, Arizona found the level of impact to be shocking.[190] "Environmental degradation has become among the migration trend's most visible consequences, a few years ago, there were 45 abandoned cars on the Buenos Aires refuge near Sasabe, Arizona and enough trash that a volunteer couple filled 723 large bags with 18,000 pounds of garbage over two months in 2002."[191]

"It has been estimated that the average desert-walking immigrant leaves behind 8 pounds of trash during a journey that lasts one to three days if no major incidents occur. Assuming half a million people cross the border illegally into Arizona annually, that translates to 2,000 tons of trash that migrants dump each year."[192]

Illegal immigrants trying to get to the United States via the Mexican border with southern Arizona are suspected of having caused eight major wildfires in 2002. The fires destroyed 68,413 acres (276.86 km2) and cost taxpayers $5.1 million to fight.[193]

National security and terrorism[edit]

Mohamed Atta and two of his co-conspirators had expired visas when they executed the September 11 attacks. All of the attackers had U.S. government issued documents, and two of them were erroneously granted visa extensions after their deaths.[194] The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States found that the government inadequately tracked those with expired tourist or student visas.

Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think-tank that promotes immigration reduction, testified in a hearing before the House of Representatives:

out of the 48 al-Qaeda operatives who committed crimes here between 1993 and 2001, 12 of them were illegal immigrants when they committed their crimes, seven of them were visa overstayers, including two of the conspirators in the first World Trade Center attack, one of the figures from the New York subway bomb plot, and four of the 9/11 terrorists. In fact, even a couple other terrorists who were not illegal when they committed their crimes had been visa overstayers earlier and had either applied for asylum or finagled a fake marriage to launder their status.[195]

Vice Chair Lee H. Hamilton and Commissioner Slade Gorton of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States stated that of the nineteen hijackers in the September 11, 2001 attacks, "Two hijackers could have been denied admission at the port on entry based on violations of immigration rules governing terms of admission. Three hijackers violated the immigration laws after entry, one by failing to enroll in school as declared, and two by overstays of their terms of admission."[196] Six months after the attack, their flight schools received posthumous visa approval letters from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for two of the hijackers, which made it clear that actual approval of the visas took place before the September 11 attacks.[197]

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, illegal immigrants within the United States have attempted to carry out other terrorist attacks as well. Three of the six conspirators in the 2007 Fort Dix attack plot—Dritan Duka, Shain Duka, and Eljvir Duka—were ethnic Albanians from the Republic of Macedonia who entered the United States illegally through Mexico with their parents in 1984. Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, an illegal immigrant from Jordan who remained in the United States after the expiration of his tourist visa, was arrested in September 2009 for attempting to carry out a car bomb attack against Fountain Place in Dallas.

In the case of Rasmea Odeh, she was convicted of immigration fraud in 2014 for concealing her arrest, conviction, and imprisonment for a fatal terrorist bombing in Israel.[198][199]

Harm to illegal immigrants[edit]

There are significant dangers associated with illegal immigration including potential death when crossing the border. According to Chicano activist Roberto Martinez, since the 1994 implementation of an immigration-control effort called Operation Gatekeeper, immigrants have attempted to cross the border in more dangerous locations.[200] Those crossing the border come unprepared, without food, water, proper clothing, or protection from the elements or dangerous animals; sometimes the immigrants are abandoned by those smuggling them.[200] Deaths also occur while resisting arrest. In May 2010, the National Human Rights Commission in Mexico accused Border Patrol agents of tasering illegal immigrant Anastasio Hernández-Rojas to death. Media reports that Hernández-Rojas started a physical altercation with patrol agents and later autopsy findings concluded that the suspect had trace amounts of methampehatine in his blood levels which contributed to his death.[201][202] The killing of Anastasio Hernández-Rojas was the subject of extensive media coverage in April 2012 by PBS "Need to Know"[203] and Democracy Now![204] The foreign ministry in Mexico City has demanded an explanation from San Diego and federal authorities, according to Tijuana newspapers.[201] According to the US Border Agency, there were 987 assaults on US Border Agents in 2008 and there were a total of 12 people killed by agents in 2007 and 2008.[205]

According to the Washington Office on Latin America's Border Fact Check site, Border Patrol rarely investigates allegations of abuse against migrants, and advocacy organizations say, "even serious incidents such as the shootings of migrants result in administrative, not criminal, investigations and sanctions."[206]


Many Mexican immigrants have been trafficked by either their smugglers or the employers after they have gotten to the United States. According to research at San Diego State University, approximately 6% of illegal Mexican immigrants were trafficked by their smugglers while entering the United States and 28% were trafficked by their employers after entering the United States. Trafficking rates were particularly high in the construction and cleaning industries. They also determined that 55% of illegal Mexican immigrants were abused or exploited by either their smugglers or employers.[207]

Indian, Russian, Thai, and Chinese women have been reportedly brought to the United States under false pretenses. "As many as 50,000 people are illicitly trafficked into the United States annually, according to a 1999 CIA study. Once here, they're forced to work as prostitutes, sweatshop laborers, farmhands, and servants in private homes." US authorities call it "a modern form of slavery".[208][209] Many Latina women have been lured under false pretenses to illegally come to the United States and are instead forced to work as prostitutes catering to the immigrant population. Non-citizen customers without proper documentation that have been detained in prostitution stings are generally deported.[210]


The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women has reported scores of cases where women were forced to prostitute themselves. "Trafficking in women plagues the United States as much as it does underdeveloped nations. Organized prostitution networks have migrated from metropolitan areas to small cities and suburbs. Women trafficked to the United States have been forced to have sex with 400–500 men to pay off $40,000 in debt for their passage."[211] At least 45,000 Central American children attempt to illegally immigrate to the United States every year and many of them finish in brothels as sex slaves, according to Manuel Capellin, director in Honduras of the humanitarian organization House Alliance.[212] In the United States, women, who immigrate illegally, are often forced into sexual slavery.[213][214][215]


Death by exposure has been reported in the deserts, particularly during the hot summer season.[216] "Exposure to the elements" encompasses hypothermia, dehydration, heat strokes, drowning, and suffocation. Also, illegal immigrants may die or be injured when they attempt to avoid law enforcement. Martinez points out that engaging in high speed pursuits while attempting to escape arrest can lead to death.[217] Many migrants are also killed or maimed riding the roofs of cargo trains in Mexico.[218]

Workplace injury[edit]

Recent studies have found that illegal immigration status is perceived by Latino immigrant workers as a barrier to safety at work.[219][220]


Harvard political scientist and historian Samuel P. Huntington argues in Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity that illegal immigration, primarily from Mexico, threatens to divide the United States culturally, into an Anglo-Protestant north, central, and eastern portion, and a Catholic-Hispanic southwest.

Immigration researcher Andrea Nill has a similar point. Nill noted that the association of illegal immigration with Latinos would bring adverse attention to their community.[221] Recent immigration laws could help fuel these associations and possibly encourage citizens to discriminate and distance themselves from the Hispanic culture.[221] Furthermore, this separation could allow for tensions and possibly violence to grow between both groups.[221]

Public opinion and controversy[edit]

United States economy[edit]

One of the most important factors regarding public opinion about illegal immigration is the level of unemployment; anti-illegal immigrant sentiment is highest where unemployment is highest and vice versa.[222] In general, some say that illegal immigrants are taking away jobs from Americans; however businesses and agricultural groups disagree and say that migrant workers are needed to fill unattractive jobs.[38] This is further supported by a May 2006 New York Times/CBS News Poll report that 53 percent of Americans felt "illegal immigrants mostly take the jobs Americans don't want".[223] However, there are others who say that illegal immigration helps to "decimate the bargaining leverage of the American worker. If you use a form of labor recruitment that bids down the cost of labor, that leads you to a society where a small number are very, very rich, there's nobody in the middle, and everyone is left scrambling for crumbs at the bottom.[38] Yet there are still others who say that the U.S. "has an economy that depends on illegal immigration" and "without illegal immigration labor, it would almost certainly not be possible to produce the same volume of food in the country."[38]

Opinions from influential groups in society[edit]


According to a 2006 Gallup poll, 84% of investors believe that illegal immigrants mostly take low paying jobs that Americans do not want.[224] However, nearly 62% of investors say illegal immigration is hurting the investment climate.[224] 68% of investors say that illegal immigrants cost taxpayers too much because they use government services like public education and medical services, while 25% say that in the long run, illegal immigrants become productive citizens who come to make up paying their fair share of taxes. About 80% thought that the government should do more to curb illegal immigration.[224]

Response of government[edit]

An ABC News Poll,[225] indicates that most respondents (67%) believe the United States is not doing enough to keep illegal immigrants from coming into the country and, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll[226] most Americans believe that US immigration policy needs either fundamental changes (41%) or to be completely rebuilt (49%).

In an opinion poll by Zogby International in 2005, voters were also asked, "Do you support or oppose the Bush administration's proposal to give millions of illegal immigrants guest worker status and the opportunity to become citizens?" 35% gave their support; 56 percent disagreed. The same poll noted a huge majority, 81%, believes local and state police should help federal authorities enforce laws against illegal immigration.[citation needed]

Federal response[edit]

Although Americans may favor one immigration policy over another, perceptions of government and officials' ability to implement these policies is consistently negative.[227] In November 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a set of executive actions which could extend at least temporary legal status to nearly half of the illegal immigrants in the United States. The Republican majority in the new Congress as 2015 is challenging these actions. Although some Republican senators did vote for the reform bill of 2013 Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, Obama's executive steps are not in accord with the overall stated policy position of the Republican Party.[228] On February 16, 2015, a federal district court judge issued a temporary injunction[229] against the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability program (one of the November 20, 2014 deferred action measures). The Justice Department has appealed the injunction.[230]

State and local response[edit]

According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll,[231] most respondents (55%) believe state or local police forces should arrest illegal immigrants they encounter who have not broken any state or local laws.

The previously cited CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll indicates that most respondents (76%) are against state governments issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. A poll by the Field Institute found "[California] residents are very much opposed (62% to 35%) to granting illegal immigrants who do not have legal status in this country the right to obtain a California driver's license. However, opinion is more divided (49% to 48%) about a plan to issue a different kind of driver's license that would allow these immigrants to drive but would also identify them as not having legal status."[232][233]

Further, most respondents (63%) in the above-mentioned 2006 Quinnipiac University Poll[234] support local laws passed by communities to fine businesses that hire illegal immigrants while 33% oppose it.

In addition to these opinions, others at the local level have gotten involved in grass root, citizen-organized efforts to enhance controls on illegal migration.[235] Several citizen-led anti-illegal migration organizations have been created under the "Minuteman" name. These organizations developed with the purpose of patrolling the border and lobbying legislative bodies to reduce illegal migration. For instance, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (n.d.) have the following as their stated mission: "It is the mission of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps to see the borders and coastal boundaries of the United States secured against the unlawful and unauthorized entry of all individuals, contraband, and foreign military. We will employ all means of civil protest, demonstration, and political lobbying to accomplish this goal."[236]

Sanctuary cities[edit]

Currently there is a lot of controversy around Sanctuary cities, one response from the state and local governments. Many American cities have designated themselves as sanctuary cities and many other state and municipal governments discourage the reporting of illegal immigrants to U.S. immigration and Customs Enforcement.[36] A sanctuary city is defined as a city that follows certain practices to protect illegal immigrants; these include – cities that do not allow municipal funds or resources to be used to enforce federal immigration laws, usually by not allowing police or municipal employees to inquire about one's immigration status.[237] These cities include Washington D.C., New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Santa Ana, San Diego, San Jose, Salt Lake City, El Paso, Houston, Detroit, Jersey City, Minneapolis, Miami, Denver, Baltimore, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, New Haven, Somerville, Cambridge, and Portland, Maine.[238] The controversy of this topic comes up around election time when public officials are often faced with deciding if they will continue to enforce the laws of a sanctuary city or appear to be harsher on immigration. Also the public opinion of the cities is not very high, a poll in 2011 found that 59% of the population supported a proposal to remove federal funding to sanctuary cities and 58% wanted the Justice Department to take action against these cities.[239]


71% of respondents in a 2006 Quinnipiac University Polling Institute poll believed that enforcement of immigration laws will require additional measures beyond a border fence, with 65% of respondents supporting employer fines.[234] 77% of respondents to a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll support employer fines.[240][241]

A 2007 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicates 57% strongly favor employer fines and 17% somewhat favor them, while 44% strongly favor increased border security and 19% strongly oppose.[242] In a CBS News/New York Times poll, 69% of Americans favor prosecuting and deporting illegal immigrants; 33% favor deporting those who have lived and worked in the U.S. for at least two years.[226][243]

The Manhattan Institute reported that 78% of likely Republican voters favor a proposal combining increased border security, tougher penalties for employers who hire illegal workers, and allowing illegal immigrants to register for a temporary worker program that includes a path to citizenship. Respondents favored the program over a deportation and enforcement-only plan 58% to 33%.[244]

Following the passage of Arizona's Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act in April 2010, which authorizes police officials to question persons on their immigration status if there is reasonable suspicion that they are illegally in the country or committing other violations not related to their immigration status, numerous polls showed widespread support for the law. A Rasmussen poll found that 60% of the electorate support such a law while 31% are opposed to such a law.[245] A New York Times poll showed similar results: 51% of Americans felt the law was "about right" in its dealings with illegal immigration, 9% felt that its measures did not go far enough to address the problem while 36% have negative opinions regarding such a law.[246]


How Democracy Works Now: Twelve Stories is a 12-part documentary film series that examines the American political system through the lens of immigration reform from 2001–2007, from filmmaking team Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini. Several films in the series contain a large focus on the issue of illegal immigration in the U.S. and feature advocates from both sides of the debate. Since the debut of the first five films, the series has become an important resource for advocates, policy-makers and educators.[247]

The series premiered on HBO with the broadcast debut of The Senator's Bargain on March 24, 2010. A directors' cut of The Senator's Bargain was featured in the 2010 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Lincoln Center, with the theatrical title Story 12: Last Best Chance. That film featured Ted Kennedy's efforts to pass The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. The second story in the 12-part series, Mountains and Clouds, opened the festival in the same year.

The films document the attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform during the years from 2001–2007, and present a behind-the-scenes story of the success (and failure) of many bills from that period with an effect on illegal immigration including:

Marking Up The Dream, Story Six in the How Democracy Works Now series, focuses on the heated 2003 markup in The Senate Judiciary Committee, contrasting optimistic supporters who viewed The DREAM Act as a small bi-partisan bill that would help children, with opponents who saw the legislation as thinly-veiled amnesty. Also presented in the film are the rallies and demonstrations from illegal immigrant students who would benefit from the DREAM Act. The film opens with demonstration by some illegal high-school students as they stage a mock graduation ceremony on the U.S. Capitol lawn.

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Barkan, Elliott R. "Return of the Nativists? California Public Opinion and Immigration in the 1980s and 1990s". Social Science History 2003 27(2): 229–283. in Project Muse
  • Brimelow, Peter; Alien Nation (1996)
  • Cull, Nicholas J. and Carrasco, Davíd, ed. Alambrista and the US-Mexico Border: Film, Music, and Stories of Undocumented Immigrants U. of New Mexico Press, 2004. 225 pp.
  • De La Torre, Miguel A., Trails of Hope and Terror: Testimonies on Immigration. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 2009.
  • Dowling, Julie A., and Jonathan Xavier Inda, eds. Governing Immigration Through Crime: A Reader. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.
  • Espenshade, Thomas J. "Unauthorized Immigration to the United States" Annual Review of Sociology. Volume: 21. 1995. pp 195+.
  • Flores, William V. "New Citizens, New Rights: Undocumented Immigrants and Latino Cultural Citizenship" Latin American Perspectives 2003 30(2): 87–100
  • Hanson, Victor David Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (2003)
  • Harbage Page. Susan and Inés Valdez, "Residues of Border Control", Southern Spaces, April 17, 2011.
  • Inda, Jonathan Xavier. Targeting Immigrants: Government, Technology, and Ethics. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.
  • Kalhan, Anil, Rethinking Immigration Detention, 110 Columbia Law Review Sidebar 42, 2010
  • Kalhan, Anil, Immigration Policing and Federalism Through the Lens of Technology, Surveillance, and Privacy, 74 Ohio State Law Journal 1105, 2013
  • Kennedy, John F. A Nation of Immigrants. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.
  • Kuczewski, Mark G. PhD; Brubaker, Linda MD, MS. "Medical Education for "Dreamers": Barriers and Opportunities for Undocumented Immigrants". Academic Medicine. Retrieved December 4, 2014. * Magaña, Lisa, Straddling the Border: Immigration Policy and the INS (2003)
  • Mohl, Raymond A. "Latinization in the Heart of Dixie: Hispanics in Late-twentieth-century Alabama" Alabama Review 2002 55(4): 243–274. ISSN 0002-4341
  • Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004)
  • Ngai, Mae M. "The Strange Career of the Illegal Alien: Immigration Restriction and Deportation Policy in the United States, 1921–1965" Law and History Review 2003 21(1): 69–107. ISSN 0738-2480 Fulltext in History Cooperative
  • Vicino, Thomas J. Suburban Crossroads: The Fight for Local Control of Immigration Policy. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013.

External links[edit]