11 Million Immigrants: What's In A Number?

May 10, 2013
Originally published on May 16, 2013 10:46 am

SAN DIEGO — Eleven million — that’s the estimated number of immigrants living in the United States illegally. The number has become the most-cited statistic in the immigration reform debate. But how did we even arrive at that figure? Who are these 11 million people? And is it even the best number to use?

Jeffrey Passel is the man responsible for the number. He’s senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, and to arrive at 11 million, he collected a bunch of government data that would allow him to fill in this equation:

“The total number of immigrants, minus the number of immigrants here legally, is the number here without authorization.”

Sounds simple, but it’s not. In fact, 26 years ago, when President Ronald Reagan signed an amnesty for three million immigrants, there was much disagreement over how to calculate the number. Many people argued there were three to four times that many immigrants without authorization living in the country.

Pew’s formula uses Labor Department survey data that includes workers’ country of origin to estimate the total number of immigrants in the country, subtracts the number admitted legally based on federal immigration statistics, then makes some statistical adjustments to reach the 11 million estimate.

“Today there’s a much broader agreement about how many people we’re talking about and about who we’re talking about,” Passel said.

So then, let’s accept that 11 million figure as the number of people here without documents. That’s more than the total population of Greece, by the way. But who are they?

Some of what the Passel has found is probably no surprise. About six million of the 11 million are Mexicans. Sixty percent are men. A majority live in large states like California, Texas, Illinois and New York.

But more than four million now live in other states too, in the South, the Midwest and the Northwest, giving all those regions a larger stake in an immigration reform bill.

“It’s part of, I think, the demographic underpinnings of what’s turned this into a national debate instead of a local debate,” Passel said.

There are also hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Chinese, Koreans and Filipinos. Many of those from countries overseas didn’t even start off as immigrants.

“Forty percent entered the country through a port of entry, and then just overstayed their visas,” said Ben Winograd, a former attorney at the American Immigration Council.

And if you keeping digging into the 11 million, yet another picture emerges — a picture of families. Passel says a majority of unauthorized immigrants — 80 percent of women and more than half of men — are here with spouses and children.

Families like that of Gloria Mejia, who on a recent afternoon was picking her 8-year-old son Joaquin up from school in San Diego.

Mejia, who is undocumented, recently learned the janitorial company she works for had been audited by immigration officials, and that she’ll lose her job at the end of May. She said it’s just another way being undocumented has made it hard to help her kids get ahead.

“It makes me sad that I can’t help them more,” she said.

Even Joaquin, her only child who is a U.S. citizen, has been affected.

She says he wants to join a traveling soccer team, but can’t because she’s afraid to travel with him. He wants to go to Disneyland, 90 minutes north of San Diego, but she can’t take him because she fears occasional Border Patrol checkpoints on the highway route.

“That example you’ve given is so perfect. That you can’t travel across states to participate in a soccer tournament,” said Michael Fix, a senior vice president of the Migration Policy Institute. “It may mean that a mother is less likely to go to a PTA conference.”

He said recent research has just begun to show that children who are U.S. citizens are negatively affected in the long term — cognitively, socially and educationally — by having undocumented parents who live in the shadows.

Jeff Passel said 4.5 million American citizen children live that situation. And he says that’s important to understand when considering the actual impact of a bill that would grant legal status to the nation’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants.

“Instead of 11 million people we’re talking more about 16 million,” Passel said.

For the 11 million number that’s become so ubiquitous, that’s a pretty big asterisk. But Passel said 16 million may be just as important a number.

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