Demographics of the Illegal Alien Population

Demographic data regarding illegal aliens are generally based on estimates because government-collected data do not ask about legal status. One major exception concerns the beneficiaries of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) amnesty of 1986. Congress mandated two studies of this population. The first report on a sample population of beneficiaries was issued in 19921 and the second was issued in 1996.2

The legalized aliens who provided information in the surveys received amnesty on the basis that they had been residing illegally in the United States since before the cut-off date in 1992.The sample included only persons aged 18 or older at the time of the amnesty. It did not include any of the about two-fifths of the amnesty recipients who qualified on the basis of work in agriculture. The absence of these agricultural workers in the survey results is important because their characteristics were likely significantly different from the others. The pre-1982 beneficiaries included one-fourth who entered with visas and overstayed illegally. These overstayers were most often persons who entered as students and they, therefore, tended to have higher levels of education, English communication skills, earnings potential and upward mobility than those who entered illegally. It is likely that few of the agricultural workers were visa overstayers.

1992 Data — The first of the two surveys found that:

  • 94 percent said had migrated for economic reasons.
  • 55 percent lived in California.
  • 70 percent were from Mexico.
  • 13 percent were from Central America.
  • 74 percent had never been apprehended.
  • 15 percent spoke English well
  • 80 percent used public health services.
  • 49 percent had no health insurance.

The individual profile was a median age of 32; seven years education, hourly wage of $5.45, annual income of $8,982. The average household had four persons and annual income of $15,364.

1996 Data — The second, smaller survey located and matched IRCA amnesty beneficiaries with persons who participated in the earlier survey to gain insights into what changes had occurred after five years of legal status. This survey had the same limitation as the first one in that legalized agricultural workers were not included. The survey found that;

  • Labor market participation declined, especially for women.
  • Unemployment for men was higher than for other U.S. men — a reversal from at time of amnesty.
  • The minority of English speakers gained in real wages while others "lagged far behind."
  • Three-fifths of families had liquid assets of less than $1000.
  • Two-fifths of families had no health insurance.

Naturalization — The other data available on the IRCA amnesty beneficiaries regards their rate of naturalization (becoming U.S. citizens). The immigration authorities (Immigration and Naturalization Service until 2003 and Department of Homeland Security since then) have tracked naturalization for the IRCA beneficiaries. The most recent update as of 20093 found the following rates of naturalization:

  • 53 percent of pre-1982 beneficiaries (48 percent for Mexicans)
  • 34 percent of agricultural worker beneficiaries (28 percent for Mexicans)


March 2013

  1. Bjerke, John A., "Immigration reform and Control Act: Report on the Legalized Alien Population," Immigration and Naturalization Service, March 1992.
  2. Smith, Shirley, et al., "Characteristics and Labor Market Behavior of the Legalized Population Five Years Following Legalization," U.S. Department of Labor, May 1996.
  3. Baker, Bryan, "Naturalization Rates among IRCA Immigrants: A 2009 Update, Department of Homeland Security, October 2010.