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Even as the U.S. Unauthorized Immigrant Population Remains Steady in Size, Its Composition Is Shifting, MPI Finds
Press Release
Thursday, December 17, 2020

Even as the U.S. Unauthorized Immigrant Population Remains Steady in Size, Its Composition Is Shifting, MPI Finds

Fact Sheet Accompanied by Data Tool with Profiles of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population at U.S., State and Top County Levels

WASHINGTON — While the number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States has been largely stable over the past decade, there have been notable changes in the composition of the population, which has seen a sizeable drop in Mexicans alongside increased arrivals from other world regions, especially Asia and Central America.

The number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico fell from 7.6 million in 2007, right before the onset of the Great Recession, to 5.5 million in 2018, a new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) fact sheet finds. During the same period, the unauthorized population from Asia rose from 866,000 to 1.5 million, and the Central American one from 1.5 million to 1.8 million.

Overall, MPI researchers found that the unauthorized population stood at 11 million in 2018, down from its 12.3 million peak in 2007 but up slightly from its post-recession low of 10.5 million in 2017. Unauthorized immigrants made up 23 percent of the overall immigrant population in the United States in 2018 — down from 30 percent right before the onset of the 2008 recession.

“Looking ahead, future trends in this population’s numbers and characteristics will be shaped by the ongoing effects of the Trump administration’s ramped-up border enforcement, asylum restrictions and deportations; the impacts of the pandemic and the associated economic contraction in both the United States and origin countries; and the course the incoming Biden administration sets for U.S. immigration policy,” write authors Randy Capps, Julia Gelatt and Ariel G. Ruiz Soto from MPI and Jennifer Van Hook from The Pennsylvania State University.

The analysis draws from a unique methodology, which MPI created with Van Hook and James Bachmeier of Temple University, that allows the assignment of legal status in the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). Given the Census Bureau does not ask decennial census or ACS respondents if they are in the country without authorization, the resulting dataset offers a rare ability to study characteristics of the unauthorized population as well as model eligibility for programs such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Among the fact sheet’s other top findings (all as of 2018):

  • Though their share of all unauthorized immigrants is shrinking, given economic and demographic changes in Mexico and strengthened U.S. border enforcement, Mexicans still accounted for 51 percent of all unauthorized immigrants. Mexico and Central America represented 68 percent of the total, with Asia at 14 percent, South America at 7 percent and Europe/Canada/Oceania combined at 6 percent.
  • Fifteen percent of unauthorized immigrants (1.7 million people) held a temporary status or deferral of deportation with work authorization, including DACA beneficiaries, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders and asylum applicants granted employment authorization.
  • About 1.6 million unauthorized immigrants were married to U.S. citizens and another 675,000 were married to lawful permanent residents (LPRs). At the same time, 4.4 million U.S.-citizen children had at least one unauthorized immigrant parent, as did 100,000 LPR or nonimmigrant children.

Alongside the fact sheet, MPI has updated its unique socio-demographic profiles of the unauthorized immigrant population at U.S., state and top county levels. The profiles offer everything from size and origins of the unauthorized population by country and region to characteristics such as age, years of U.S. residence, home ownership, industry of employment, English proficiency, educational enrollment and attainment, and marital and parental status.

Read the fact sheet here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/unauthorized-immigrants-united-states-stable-numbers-changing-origins.

Access profiles of unauthorized immigrants for the United States, 41 states and the 127 counties with the largest such populations here: www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/us-immigration-policy-program-data-hub/unauthorized-immigrant-population-profiles.

For an interactive map showing the top state and county concentrations for the largest unauthorized immigrant populations by national or regional origin, visit: www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/charts/unauthorized-immigrant-populations-country-and-region-top-state-and-county.

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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at local, national and international levels.