Why the ‘Illegal’ Population Stopped Growing

For the first time in decades, the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has leveled off.

People march through downtown Los Angeles supporting immigrant rights during a May Day march. A Pew Research Center analysis shows that the undocumented population in the United States has stopped growing for the first time in decades.
National Journal
Alexia Fernã¡Ndez Campbell
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Alexia Fernández Campbell
July 23, 2015, 5 a.m.

Des­pite polit­ic­al rhet­or­ic about Amer­ica’s open bor­ders, the un­doc­u­mented pop­u­la­tion in the United States has ac­tu­ally stopped grow­ing.

For the first time in dec­ades, the num­ber of un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants in the United States has leveled off, ac­cord­ing to a pre­lim­in­ary es­tim­ates by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter. This comes after the num­bers quad­rupled between 1990 and 2007. Dur­ing that time, the num­ber of people who ar­rived in the coun­try without per­mis­sion — or who over­stayed their visas — skyrock­eted from 3.5 mil­lion to 12.2 mil­lion.

The Great Re­ces­sion star­ted to change that. So did the sharp in­crease in de­port­a­tions dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. The un­doc­u­mented pop­u­la­tion has re­mained about the same over the last sev­en years, de­creas­ing slightly to 11.3 mil­lion people in 2014, ac­cord­ing to the Pew ana­lys­is, which is based on gov­ern­ment data.

This trend points to a lar­ger shift in the pat­tern of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, says Jef­frey Pas­sel, a seni­or demo­graph­er at Pew Re­search Cen­ter. Though Mex­ic­ans still make up the largest group of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, their num­bers are shrink­ing over­all.

“En­force­ment at the bor­der and the in­teri­or seems to be work­ing as a de­terrent,” he says. “It’s got­ten quite a lot more dif­fi­cult to sneak in [from Mex­ico], and it’s also more ex­pens­ive to hire a smug­gler.”

The lev­el­ing off doesn’t mean people have stopped cross­ing the bor­der or over­stay­ing their visas. Ac­cord­ing to Pew, it just means that a re­l­at­ively equal num­ber of people are be­ing de­por­ted, leav­ing vol­un­tar­ily or con­vert­ing to leg­al status.

The ana­lys­is also shows that the es­tim­ated 11.3 mil­lion un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants liv­ing in the coun­try are more likely to have fam­il­ies here and to be liv­ing here for more than 10 years.

These num­bers in­clude people who have been gran­ted tem­por­ary de­port­a­tion re­lief un­der Pres­id­ent Obama’s De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals pro­gram.

The ana­lys­is also shows that the es­tim­ated 11.3 mil­lion un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants liv­ing in the coun­try are more likely to have fam­il­ies here and to be liv­ing here for more than 10 years.

“It’s no longer the ste­reo­type of the single guy who just came over,” says Pas­sel.

The re­search cen­ter’s ana­lys­is is based on the U.S. Census Bur­eau’s Cur­rent Pop­u­la­tion Sur­vey and Amer­ic­an Com­munity Sur­vey. The cen­ter will re­lease more de­tailed es­tim­ates later this year.

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