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Contents Background Estimates Since 1986 Analysis from the March Current Population Survey Analysis from the American Community Survey Analysis of the Monthly Current Population Survey Contributing Factors Figures Figure 1. Estimated Number of Unauthorized Resident Aliens, 1986-2009 Figure 2. Unauthorized Resident Alien Population, by Place of Origin, 1986 and 2008 Figure 3. Unauthorized Resident Aliens in 2008, by Reported Year of Arrival Figure 4. Unauthorized Resident Alien Population, by State Figure 5. Top 10 States with Unauthorized Resident Aliens Figure 6. Top 10 Source Countries of Unauthorized Resident Aliens Figure 7. Age Distribution of Unauthorized Resident Aliens in 2008, by Gender Contacts Author Contact Information
August 25, 2009
The number of foreign-born people residing in the United States (an estimated 37 to 39 million) is at the highest level in our history and, as a portion of the U.S. population, has reached a percentage (12.4%) not seen since the early 20th century. (1) The actual number of unauthorized aliens in the United States is unknown. Of the foreign-born residents in the United States, approximately one-third are to be estimated unauthorized aliens residents (often characterized as illegal aliens), one-third are estimated to be legal permanent residents (LPRs), and one-third are estimated to be naturalized U.S. citizens. (2)
The three main components of the unauthorized resident alien population are (1) aliens who overstay their nonimmigrant visas, (3) (2) aliens who enter the country surreptitiously without inspection, and (3) aliens who are admitted on the basis of fraudulent documents. In all three instances, the aliens are in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and subject to removal.
The last major law that allowed unauthorized aliens living in the United States to legalize their status was the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 (P.L. 99-603). Generally, legislation such as IRCA is referred to as an "amnesty" or a legalization program because it provides LPR status to aliens who are otherwise residing illegally in the United States. Among IRCA's main provisions was a time-limited legalization program, codified at [section] 245A of the Immigration and Nationality Act, that enabled certain illegal aliens who entered the United States before January 1, 1982, to become LPRs. (4) It also had a provision that permitted aliens working illegally as "special agricultural workers" to become LPRs. (5) Nearly 2.7 million aliens established legal status through the provisions of IRCA.
Continued high levels of unauthorized migration to the United States have, in part, prompted the current discussion of guest worker programs, as well as major proposals that would permit legalization under specified conditions. There are also proposals aimed at reducing unauthorized migration by tightening up enforcement of immigration laws. The report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission) stated that "more than 9 million people are in the United States outside the legal immigration system" as one of the reasons for the Commission's recommendations to improve immigration services and strengthen enforcement of immigration laws. (6)
This CRS report presents data estimating the number of unauthorized aliens who have been living in the United States since 1986. There have been a variety of estimates of the unauthorized resident alien population over this period, sometimes with substantially different results. This report is limited to data analyses of the Current Population Survey (CPS) (7) conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the American Community Survey (ACS) (8) conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau so that there are basic standards of comparison over time. (9) Because the CPS and the ACS are both sample surveys of the U.S. population, the results are estimates. Additionally, while the data distinguish between the foreign born who have naturalized and those who have not, they do not identify immigration status (e.g., legal permanent resident, refugee, temporary foreign worker, foreign student, unauthorized alien). Summaries of the detailed analyses of the March CPS, the ACS, and the monthly CPS are presented separately because each of these surveys is based on different questions and sample sizes.
Estimates Since 1986
For a basis of comparison, Figure 1 presents the estimate of 3.2 million unauthorized resident aliens in 1986 calculated by demographers Karen Woodrow and Jeffrey Passel, who worked for the U.S. Census Bureau at that time. As expected after the passage of IRCA, the estimate for 1988 dropped to 1.9 million. (10) According to demographer Robert Warren of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the estimated unauthorized resident alien population grew to 3.4 million in 1992 and to 5.0 million in 1996. (11) By the close of the decade, the estimated number of unauthorized alien residents had more than doubled. Passel, now at the Pew Hispanic Center, estimated the unauthorized population in 2000 at 8.5 million, but this latter estimate included aliens who had petitions pending or relief from deportation. (12)
Subsequently, Warren estimated that there were 7.0 million unauthorized aliens residing in the United States in 2000. As depicted in Figure 1, he also …