Facts Regarding Unauthorized Immigrants

Written by Richard Hokenson 

Inflammatory language regarding immigrants can become especially heated when the topic shifts to unauthorized immigrants, sometimes derisively called “illegal aliens”. They are a subset of our prior discussion which covered all foreign-born persons residing in the U.S. As was true in that discussion, there is scant attention to the facts. This report highlights the major points contained in a recent analysis published by the Pew Research Center:

  • The unauthorized population is shrinking and is now at the lowest level in a decade. It fell to 10.7 million in 2016 from 12.2 million in 2007 (see Figure 1). The decline is due almost entirely to a sharp decrease in the number of Mexicans entering the U.S. without authorization (see Figures 1 and 2). The 13% drop in the unauthorized population is in stark contrast to the legal immigrant population which grew by 22%, an increase of more than 6 million.

  • The Mexican border, however, remains a pathway for entry by growing numbers of persons from the three Northern Triangle nations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras making Central America the only growing region of origin (see Figure 2).
  • The vast majority of unauthorized immigrants have lived in the U.S. for nearly 15 years (see Figures 1 and 3). The increase in the number of years spent in the U.S. have meant a rising share of unauthorized document adults live in households with U.S.- born children – 43% in 2016 compared to 32% in 2007.

  • Although the common perception regarding unauthorized immigrants are persons illegally crossing the border, the reality is that most unauthorized immigrants entered the U.S. legally. Many arrive with legal visas but overstay their required departure date.
  • There are fewer recent arrivals of unauthorized persons from Mexico (see Figure 4). Mexicans are only 22% of recent arrivals which is less than half of what it was in 2007. The share of arrivals from Asia increased from 13% in 2007 to 22% in 2016; the Northern Triangle from 11% to 18%. The share from the rest of the world rose to 36% in 2016 versus 24% in 2007.

  • The impact of deportations on limiting the size and growth of the undocumented immigrant population has declined. Deportations increased during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations from 211,000 in 2003 to 433,000 in 2013. They were above 300,000 per year in 2016 but have declined since then by 17%.
  • About 5 million U.S.-born children live with unauthorized immigrant parents (see Figure 5). The number of U.S.-born children levelled off in recent years as an increasing number of children have aged into adulthood.

  • Unauthorized immigrants live in 5.2 million U.S. households (1 in 23), not much different from 2007.
  • Number of unauthorized immigrants in the labor force has declined (see Figure 6). The number of adult persons in the labor force is 7.8 million as of 2016 which is lower than a decade earlier. The share of the labor force fell to 4.8%.

  • While the number of unauthorized persons employed in lower-skilled occupations has declined, the number who work in management, business and professional jobs rose by a third (275,000 persons) over the decade.
  • 15 states registered statistically significant changes in their unauthorized immigrant population. 12 states reported declines while 3 states had increases. Declines were reported by Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Oregon (see Figure 7). Increases were reported by Louisiana, Maryland, and Massachusetts.



This update was researched and written by Richard Hokenson, as of December 7 2018