Trends in Unauthorized Immigration:
Undocumented Inflow Now Trails Legal Inflow

Senior Demographer, Pew Hispanic Center

Senior Writer, Pew Research Center

There were 11.9 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States in March 2008, according to new Pew Hispanic Center estimates. The size of the unauthorized population appears to have declined since 2007, but this finding is inconclusive because of the margin of error in these estimates.

However, it is clear from the estimates that the unauthorized immigrant population grew more slowly in the period from 2005 to 2008 than it did earlier in the decade.

It also is clear that from 2005 to 2008, the inflow of immigrants who are undocumented fell below that of immigrants who are legal permanent residents. That reverses a trend that began a decade ago. The turnaround appears to have occurred in 2007.

The Pew Hispanic Center also estimates that inflows of unauthorized immigrants averaged 800,000 a year from 2000 to 2004, but fell to 500,000 a year from 2005 to 2008 with a decreasing year-to-year trend. By contrast, the inflow of legal permanent residents has been relatively steady this decade.

Although the growth of the unauthorized population has slackened, its size has increased by more than 40% since 2000, when it was 8.4 million. In 2005, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated there were 11.1 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. The most recent estimate, 11.9 million, indicates that unauthorized immigrants make up 4% of the U.S. population.

These estimates are based mainly on data from the 2000 Census and the March Current Population Surveys for the years since then. Because the Census Bureau does not ask people their immigration status, these estimates are derived using a widely accepted methodology that essentially subtracts the estimated legal-immigrant population from the total foreign-born population. The residual is treated as a source of data on the unauthorized immigrant population.

The estimates are not designed to explain why the net growth rate has declined. There could be a number of possible causes, including a slowdown in U.S. economic growth that has had a disproportionate impact on foreign-born Latino workers, at the same time that economic growth in Mexico and other Latin American countries has been stable. Another factor could be a heightened focus on enforcement of immigration laws, which a recent Pew Hispanic Center survey indicates has generated worry among many Hispanics.

© Pew Hispanic Center

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