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How many illegal immigrants live in the United States and where do they come from?

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Data source: Jeffrey Passel and D’Vera Cohn “A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States” Pew Hispanic Center, April 14, 2009.

It is impossible to say exactly how many undocumented immigrants are living in the United States precisely because no authority documents their entry into the country. (This is one reason why researchers like myself prefer the term “undocumented immigrant” to “illegal immigrant”—see my article about how we should refer to people who migrate illegally.)

Researchers therefore use various techniques to make estimates (approximate calculations) of the size of the undocumented population. The best estimates that I am aware of come from the Pew Hispanic Center (PHC), a nonpartisan research institute based in Washington, DC. In a report published February 1, 2011, the PHC estimated that there were about 11.2 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. in March 2010. This is down from an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. in March 2007. A handful of factors explain the decrease in the undocumented population between 2007-2010, including: the economic downturn in the U.S., the growing intensity of drug cartel violence near the US-Mexico border, lower birthrates in Mexico, and stricter border enforcement by the United States.

To put all this in perspective, consider that undocumented immigrants make up about 3.6% of total US population.

Mexicans make up the largest share of the undocumented population, at about 6.7 to 7 million people, or 59% of the total.

Why do comparatively so many Mexicans migrate illegally?

Part of the explanation has to do with Mexico’s relative poverty and proximity. Mexico shares a 2000-mile land border with the United States. This border marks one of the largest income gaps between any two neighboring countries in the world. The US-Mexico border is also something that meant much less in the past, and hundreds of thousands of Mexicans used to come and go between home and the US every year with relative ease until our immigration laws changed so dramatically in 1986. This long history as neighbors means that the border splits millions of Mexican and American families. As a result of the U.S-Mexico income disparity and our countries’ exceptional social, economic, and historical ties, a lot of Mexicans want to migrate to the US.

Another part of the explanation has to do with the fact that our immigration laws essentially treat Mexicans the same as just about any other nationality despite Mexico’s special status as a neighbor. That so many Mexicans compete with each other for such a small number of visas means that it’s virtually impossible for the typical Mexican immigrant to enter the country legally in his or her lifetime. With no way to enter legally, people make the difficult decision of migrating illegally.

In 2010, the US provided just under 180,000 visas to Mexicans for labor and family unification purposes. This figure is equivalent to just 2.7% the size of the undocumented Mexican population and 0.06% of total US population.

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50 Comments

  1. shrek says:

    that’s our government for you they’ll let anyone in this country .why have laws

  2. n/a says:

    How do you think I feel? When the population of illegal immigrants is WAY higher then the percentage of legal citizens?? No one in my town even speaks english…

  3. Anonymous says:

    what’s your conclusion about this ?

  4. Guillermo Mogollan says:

    Well I really liked this article however, as the outstanding AP US History student that I am, I have learned about our countries story. But I will make this short because I have an AP exam to get ready for. I agree that immigrating to the USA illegally sounds bad, but it’s a really good thing. After World War II we had something happen in America called “the baby boom” this was because World war two helped us get out of the great depression. Americans were doing really good and the birth rate went up drastically. Which means that those kids were going to get old right about NOW. The truth is immigrants are playing a huge part in paying for these people’s SS; these people could be your parents, your best friends parents, maybe your best friend or maybe even you. The birth rate is low which means that without immigrants this country would not be at the top right now. Immigrants are what are keeping this country going. You may disagree with me, but that is true. In fact my APUSH teacher told me this. I find it hard for a counter argument to exist. – Memo

    do you agree or disagree?

    • Dan says:

      Illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes. Which means no help to Social Security. Congrats on your AP classes, lets talk when you finish college.

      • Roy Germano says:

        Dan, undocumented immigrants pay taxes.

        Guillermo, you make a very insightful point based on accurate information. Good luck with your studies!

        • Beth says:

          How do undocumented immigrants pay taxes? You make absolutely no sense. Actually, the burden imposed by illegal immigrants in terms of the school system, hospitals is very high ; given that they are not the educated lot and of course do hold low-paying jobs and pay no taxes

          • Roy Germano says:

            Hi Beth: I’m sorry to hear that something was unclear. Did you read this article and follow the links to the evidence? If anything is still unclear after you read that, feel free to leave specific questions in the comments.

          • ActivismAlive says:

            The immigrant population in America are some of the most skilled workers and hard workers. They might not have a formal education due to a lack of opportunity but they are in no way uneducated fools. Most people who are here pay taxes whether through Federal and State Taxes from jobs that they work, there are segments of the illegal population that can work and pay taxes and live full lives but cannot travel outside the US. Now if they illegally entered from Mexico or Overstay their Visitors Visa then they dont have the opportunity to pay taxes the traditional way but do pay taxes through consumer tax on products.

        • Julie says:

          Yes, they do pay taxes. Believe it or not, the are issued a Tax I.D. number, just like your SSN. I am aware of of this since I have seen it firsthand (don’t attack me, I was born in Los Angeles). The individuals I know file a tax return every year, with illegal status and taxpayer ID number. Of course, they will never be able to collect any benefits.

      • Donna says:

        I just read your comment and decided to address your incorrect statement. In fact, yes, there are “illegal immigrants” rather “undocumented immigrants” who pay taxes. In fact, they have been in this country for decades and own their businesses and make millions of dollars each year. You see, I-9s are not required for independent business owners, only a social security or tax identification number. Even today there are many places one can purchase these either legally or illegally. Perhaps you might want to reconsider responding to someone in a demeaning way before you have all the facts.

      • Donna says:

        By-the-way, my comment was intended for Dan not Roy.

    • Connie says:

      I agree…

    • m chasse says:

      You are being taught a lie and are apparently lapping it up. Do you own researcg, These illegals are costing trillions at a time when we will not support our veterans, 600,000 AMERICANS are homeless and 25 AMERICAN children go hungry while money goes to illegals. At least 20 to 25 AMERICANS are out of work. Letting them these illegals in is a push for them to vote for obummer and his communist agenda. IF this happens all of our laws go in the toilet. Your APUSH teacher is teaching a lie and you lap it up.
      SHAME ON YOU.

  5. [...]  Data source: Jeffrey Passel and D’Vera Cohn “A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States” Pew Hispanic Center, April 14, 2009. (roygermano.wordpress.com) [...]

  6. Amber says:

    Hi, impressive blog! I’m interested to find out where specifically in Mexico unauthorized immigrants come from and what type of demographic they come from (ie small farmer), specifically to research whether those are places and individuals detrimentally affected by NAFTA. Do you have any insight regarding this?
    Thanks!
    Amber

  7. j Weiss says:

    Are you taking into account the fact that illegal immigrants are essentially stealing American’s and other legal immigrants identities in order to “legally” work? Identity theft is a serious crime, that affects those citizens previously mentioned directly, in numerous ways.
    http://www.cis.org/print/IdentityTheft
    :

  8. Jess says:

    Many Americans believe that illegal immigrants need to be deported or migrate legally. I agree, but I also see why illegal immigration to the U.S. is so common. Our new immigration laws only allow you to become a permanent resident if you have a family member here, are a professional (doctor, engineer, lawyer) in your home country, have lots of money to invest in American business, etc. Many poor people from low-income nations without those connections do not stand a chance. I think changing immigration requirements can reduce the number of people who migrate illegally.
    This idea that we only want professionals and billionaires from other countries shows what our society has become. 40 years ago, manufacturing jobs were the heart of the economy. Now they’ve all been shipped overseas and we are encouraged to become a professional, find some way to make a lot of money, or otherwise if not you’re a loser. I think if we brought back the good old manufacturing jobs it would help our economy tremendously.

    • Srini says:

      Everyone knows the item or product made in America has ‘”Quality’” “Craftsmanship” “Durability” and we stand for service.

      The only way, the manufacturing jobs would come back to United States is if the dollar value goes down, where imports could become expensive. The second option would be Americans buying only “US made products” and the third option would be eliminating “high insurance costs” and putting limits on ‘Lawsuits”.

      The second option is not a great choice, because we want other countries to buy US made products, so that we are in export business.

      If government could put a strategy (rather than political talk or speech) then probably we can produce great product at lower costs. The cost does not need to be too low, but competitive with a foreign made product. I am pretty sure, Americans would buy US product, if the price is in a range with a foreign product. I do not think, people would buy a toy (USA made) for $49.99 if the similar product (foreign made) could be purchased at $19.99. I would say, people may prefer to buy the US product if it is at $29.99

      Since, the manufacturing jobs are almost eliminated, then we need to train younger generation for the manufacturing sector.

      • msBrie says:

        Great way of how you broke that information down, I totally agree with your opinion. I would fully support and purchase American made product, if there was a choice. As long as the quality of the product was on point, paying the few extra bucks is ok with me. I’m so sick of Government running on & on both sides with a bunch of vague promise’s. I think all American’s are at there wits end with this. We just want someone to get in there make reasonable moves to turn this thing in the other direction. We can’t help Illegal Immigrants of any race, until we focus on home and strenghten our economy once again. Yuo are so right, there are steps Government can take now to kick that off. Maybe if both sides would comprimise work together a bit more, thus showing us that we matter. I want to see them fighting together in order to show that restoring are economy is there no# 1 priority instead of all the mud slinging.
        Comment well worded.
        Have a good one!!

    • Mark says:

      Responding to the post about manufacturing jobs in the United States.

      Manufacturing in the United States has changed dramatically. Manufacturing is increasingly high tech. Often what was performed manually, is now performed by machines, and computers controlling those machines. Some US manufactures for quite awhile have complained that manufacturing jobs requiring science and math backgrounds are difficult for them to fill. Labor in turn claims these jobs don’t pay well enough, although I haven’t seen any data to support the labor position.

      Where manual labor is required, the labor and cost of doing business is less expensive in Mexico, China, and elsewhere. Consider salary, retirement payroll taxes such as social security, retirement benefits such as 401k’s and pensions, healthcare insurance, dental insurance, eyeglass insurance, workers compensation insurance, state income taxes, Federal income taxes, property taxes (schools, county, township, city, forest preserve, library, park district, mosquito district, community college), etc. All of those items increase the quality of life of the worker, but drive up the cost of the finished good.

      Unions also increase the quality of life of the worker, but drive up the cost of the finished good. The state laws allowing unions to strike vary greatly amongst states. Not only an actual strike, but the threat of a strike, is a powerful negotiating tool in strike permissive states, driving up the cost of labor.

      Management focusing on their personal compensation, price of the company stock at the expense of product quality, and accounting cost cutting and trickery, in turn, has been cited by labor as a source of concern.

      The people working in the factories has changed. In many factories in the United States, even in northern and western states, if you do not speak English, it is very difficult and in some cases impossible to work here, because the vast majority of the workers speak Spanish. Sometimes there is reverse discrimination where the Spanish speaking labor makes life difficult for those who don’t speak Spanish. The language barrier has been present in past immigration waves, but not to the extent as present today, as in the past you did not see instructions and packaging printed in Polish or German widespread and nationwide.

      In some companies, the product is designed in the US, the machine is tooled in the US, the product is test run on the machine, then the machine and a trainer is shipped down to Mexico, where the machine is then set up again and the labor trained.

      These are yet a few of the issues related to manufacturing in the United States. The manufacturing heydey in the US was relatively brief in the history of the world. I would rather doubt we will ever see a return to that level of manufacturing.

      The rhetoric of the quality, craftsmanship, durability, and service of United States items surpassing that of other countries is just that. The spectrum of quality, craftsmanship, durability, and service ranges from poor to excellent in all industrial countries and even within a company. If there was a company you could say overall is superior, my money would be on Germany, not the United States, but again you have to look at the product itself more so than the country or company from which it is manufactured. For instance I have a little hand held garden digging tool stamped China that is quality steel with a rubber coated handle that outlasted similar tools made in the USA, whose handles have bent or broke. Just an example, there are other industrial, high tech, or complex manufacturing examples.

      The US is littered with vacant manufacturing plants in Detroit, Gary Indiana, Cleveland, and elsewhere.

      In the US, the Great Migration of about 6 million African Americans from the South to the North occurred from about 1910 – 1970.

      That is similar to the approximately 6.8 – 7.0 million undocumented Mexicans living in the US in March 2010, but dwarfed by the overall 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the United States in March 2010.

      I am interested in this subject, plan to view Ray’s movie, and would interested in what Ray has to say about all this. I am grateful for this website.

      One of the big issues I see with undocumented immigration from Mexico to the US, is that once in the US, the children receive a free public education that often far surpasses what they would receive in Mexico. The schools will teach the children the English language. I would imagine many such parents are willing to go to great lengths to improve their children’s future. I believe they are eligible to a host of free services which vary by municipality, township, county, and state.

    • Sue says:

      What about all of the homeless and poverty level people here now that don’t stand a chance? Legal citizens. Pardon me for not agreeing with people coming here illegally just because things are rough in their own country ok? Once every homeless person has a roof over their head and every child goes to bed full instead of hungry then and only then will I feel any sympathy

      • Roy Germano says:

        Sue: Jess isn’t arguing that you should condone illegal immigration, but that she can (a) understand why people would migrate illegally, and (b) she thinks that immigration requirements should be changed to allow more low skilled laborers to enter legally.

    • Beth says:

      Jess,
      Does that mean you want to open up the immigration system to allow all the poor from third world countries to migrate legally to the US? If we have lost manufacturing jobs; it’s because it is cheaper to produce in other countries with cheaper labor. If we brought those manufacturing units back to the US, the products would be expensive and unaffordable by the third-world countries; hence Chinese products would have competitive advantage. Yes, given that our country provides a good education system for children from all backgrounds, we better produce an educated society and hopefully also have educated people migrate into this country.

  9. Miranda says:

    Thank you for your information. I am an American born Hispanic with American born parents. There is a wealth of misinformation about illegal imigration and what the intentions of immigrants are. People in this country tend to forget that they too are the grandsons, grandaughters, daughters, & sons of immigrants.

  10. Cassie says:

    I read the book “The Latino Threat” by Leo Chavez. It’s a wealth of information on this subject.

  11. Jack Martin says:

    In fact Mexicans have a preference for entering the U.S. like Canadians under the provisions of NAFTA. An unlimited number of professionals are able to enter and work in the U.S. as long-term nonimmigrants. In addition, and unlimited number of Mexican agricultural workers are able to enter the U.S. as temporary workers with H-2A visas.

  12. Mark says:

    Quoting from the link above, which is dated 4.14.2009, A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States, by Jeffrey S. Passel, Senior Demographer, Pew Hispanic Center, and D’Vera Cohn, Senior Writer, Pew Research Center, http://pewhispanic.org/reports/report.php?ReportID=107, “About three-quarters (76%) of the nation’s unauthorized immigrants are Hispanic. The majority of undocumented immigrants (59%) are from Mexico. Significant regional sources of unauthorized immigrants include Asia (11%), Central America (11%), South America (7%), the Caribbean (4%) and the Middle East (less than 2%).”
    What’s the difference between an unauthorized immigrant and an undocumented immigrant?

    • Roy Germano says:

      The terms “undocumented immigrant” and “unauthorized immigrant” basically mean the same thing: people who have illegally entered a foreign country and/or who are illegally working in a foreign country (NOTE: people can enter a foreign country with a proper visas, but then violate the terms of their visas. See http://roygermano.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/how-do-people-immigrate-illegally/).

      Terms like “unauthorized immigrants” and “undocumented immigrants” are alternatives to terms like “illegal immigrants,” “illegals,” and “illegal alien,” which a growing number of people find offensive and dehumanizing (see e.g., http://colorlines.com/droptheiword/resources/en/about.html).

      Other terms that are used less frequently are “irregular immigrant” and “clandestine immigrant.”

      To my knowledge, the most mainstream terms are “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant.” The Pew Hispanic Center (a reputable nonpartisan research organization) prefers “unauthorized immigrant.” The International Organization for Migration (IOM) generally uses the term “irregular migrant.”

  13. Mark says:

    What is the source of the graph titled, “Origins of the Estimated 11 – 12 Million Undocumented Immigrants Living in the United States in 2009″.

  14. allie says:

    I’ve heard illegal immigrants from Mexico will fly to Canada then cross illegally to the US. Is this true? If so, how?

  15. K Akasia says:

    This is not correct. Mexicans that are illegal can become a citizen easier than anyone else. They choose not to become legal because then they will be tracked by the government. Being tracked by the government means less ways for loop holes for them that they take advantage of.

    • Roy Germano says:

      See the Department of State’s Visa Bulletin for green card cut-off dates (http://travel.state.gov/visa/bulletin/bulletin_1360.html). You will notice that Mexicans and Filipinos have the longest wait times. Your view about legal status is completely inconsistent with interviews I have conducted over the past 8 years. I have never met an undocumented immigrant who would prefer to remain undocumented if offered the chance to earn legal status. No one wants to be an illegal immigrant. If you have data that suggests otherwise, please feel free to provide a link.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I do not necessarily agree that Canadians have higher skill levels than Filipinos…that’s not a valid point why the Philippines is included in the “long-wait” category.

    • Roy Germano says:

      Thanks for your comment. I agree with you. But just to clarify, I did not argue that Canadians have a shorter wait than Filipinos simply because they have higher skill levels. I listed a few main factors–principally national wealth and demand for visas–to make a general statement about why some nationalities have longer waits than others. But again, I agree with you, the issue is far more complex than implied in my comment. This article does a better job of explaining visa wait times: http://roygermano.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/go-to-the-back-of-the-line/

  17. Lovenia says:

    do you know how many jobs that will bring?? Paperwork preparation….lawyers. Teachers to teach american history to the newbies…….fingerprinting… etc etc….this would be an excellent boom into the econmy! We need to think outside the box instead of living in one!

  18. Lovenia says:

    if the numbers are correct…then amnesty and penalize each one 10,000 to 12,000 each to become naturalize citizen! this would help the deficit to zero! America needs to invest in our country’s natural resources…our children!

  19. journmsu says:

    I think there are far more than 12 million undocumented workers in this country. The amount is overwhelming I believe. The topic is very touchy for many but I think worthy of discussion.

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  24. D. Al says:

    The graph above has proven very helpful for use in my debate on illegal immigration, as well as the data presented.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Very interesting, thank you.
    How does your explanation for the large percentage of undocumented aliens who are identified as coming from Mexico, account for the approximately equal percentages of undocumented aliens coming from Asia? There are certainly many more potential immigrants from Asia than from Central America. Several orders of magnitude, in fact. If it is all a matter of proximity, why are there so few from Canada and the Caribbean? Perhaps there are some other factors in play? What might those be, and what might be their relative importance?

    • Roy Germano says:

      Lots of points/questions here:
      Q: Why similar numbers of undocumented immigrants from Asia and Central America despite greater Asian population?
      A: As you point out, this is largely a matter of proximity and geography.

      Q: Then why so few undocumented immigrants from Canada?
      A: Canada is a wealthy country, so relatively fewer people are compelled to migrate and are so economically desperate that they would do so illegally. This point, combined with the fact that Canadians tend to have relatively high skill and education levels, means that the average Canadian has an easier time getting a legal visa than someone from, say, Mexico, Guatemala, or the Philippines. See my article about visa laws for more info… http://roygermano.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/go-to-the-back-of-the-line/

      Q: Why comparatively so few undocumented immigrants from the Caribbean?
      A: The 4 most populous Caribbean countries are (1) Cuba; (2) Dominican Republic; (3) Haiti; (4) Puerto Rico. Cubans and Haitians have access to special programs that allow nationals to migrate to the US legally. Puerto Ricans are US citizens, and thus able to enter the US legally.

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