How Many Illegal Aliens are in the US?
By Spencer Raley | October 23, 2017 | View The Full Report (PDF)
As of 2017, FAIR estimates the number of illegal aliens in the US to be approximately 12.5 million. This number is slightly higher than FAIR’s previous estimate of 12 million in 2011.
Difficulty in Estimating the Illegal Alien Population
Estimating the size and characteristics of the illegal alien population is an inexact science. Anyone claiming to have calculated a definitive number should be looked upon skeptically. There is no central database of illegal aliens. Furthermore, the Department of Homeland Security only counts those who enter and leave in a lawful manner. Those who evade immigration authorities or sneak across the border are not counted.
Most available sources used for estimating the total number of illegal aliens rely on migrants to self-report whether or not they hold lawful status. Illegal aliens have a strong motive to lie when asked about their immigration status. Many, understandably, feel that disclosing their unlawful status will make them vulnerable to immigration officials. Therefore, the accuracy of these statistics is doubtful, at best. Data collected by the Census Bureau, for example, attempts to differentiate between citizens, illegal aliens and lawfully present immigrants. However, this information is, again, self-reported by survey respondents without an independent verification process. The Census Bureau does not require or ask for any kind of documentation to verify that their respondents are answering demographic questions honestly.
Another complication arises due to those who enter the United States lawfully, but subsequently become illegal aliens because they remained in the country beyond their authorized period of admission. Theoretically, the government should be capable of keeping count of those who enter the United States, but then overstay their visa. However, such a practice does not exist. Researchers unfamiliar with the U.S. immigration process often omit migrants who have lost their legal status when compiling their estimates, therefore causing an undercount of the illegal alien population.
Who is an 'Illegal Alien'?
FAIR defines an “illegal alien” as anyone who entered the United States without authorization, or anyone who unlawfully remains once their authorization has expired. It is important to define who is and is not an illegal alien because many organizations, for political reasons, attempt to undercount the number of illegal aliens currently living in the United States. This not only allows them to give the false impression that illegal immigration is a smaller problem than it actually is, but also to suggest that the fiscal impact on legally present and native taxpayers is less than it is in reality.
How we Reached our Estimate
FAIR’s estimates, while slightly larger, are similar to those of most mainstream research organizations. However, many organizations undercount the number of illegal aliens by assuming that algorithms based on Census Bureau data only slightly underrepresent the total number of illegal aliens, and/or by classifying unaccompanied alien minors (UAMs), as well as recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS), as holding authorized presence in the United States. FAIR disagrees with these characterizations. Many of the analytical methods used by the Census Bureau and other research organizations discount obvious indicators of illegal presence. In addition, recipients of TPS, DACA, etc. have not received lawful status as the term is commonly understood. Rather, the U.S. government recognizes that these individuals are unlawfully present, yet declines to take immediate action for reasons of administrative convenience. Accordingly, when calculating the illegal alien population, FAIR includes all adults and children who lack formal immigrant or nonimmigrant statuses, as well as individuals who have received temporary reprieves through TPS, DACA, etc. We also acknowledge that algorithms based on Census Bureau data underestimate illegal aliens at a greater rate than many research agencies believe.
To break it down, FAIR's total national illegal alien estimate includes a base number of just over 11.2 million adult illegal aliens1, approximately 350,000 TPS beneficiaries (mostly Central Americans) and roughly 800,000 DACA recipients as well as illegal aliens with other forms of temporary relief from removal.2 Programs like DACA and TPS draw some illegal aliens out of the shadows who would otherwise likely hide their unlawful status. This understandably causes estimates to rise as better demographic information becomes available.3 The total excludes an estimated 4.2 million American-born children of illegal aliens. These children of illegal aliens are, under the current interpretation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, U.S. citizens. While not counted as illegal aliens, they are a significant part of illegal immigration’s fiscal impact on the U.S. taxpayer, as noted in FAIR's most recent fiscal cost study.4
Like other research organizations, we calculate the base population estimate by examining Census Bureau data, and the subset of households that the Census Bureau designates as being occupied by foreign-born people who are not naturalized citizens or legally present aliens. However, as noted already, Census Bureau estimates are likely to be low due the various incentives illegal aliens have to avoid disclosing their lack of status. While some organizations have recently lowered the percentage by which they believe the Census Bureau undercounts illegal aliens, FAIR maintains that the undercount remains significant, despite the increasing availability of data gathered through programs like DACA.
Where do Illegal Aliens Live in the United States
Unsurprisingly, illegal aliens tend to live near the United States’ border with Mexico, and in states that offer incentives for breaking American immigration law. The ten states with the largest estimated illegal alien populations account for just under three-fourths (73.7%) of the national total.
The following chart estimates how many illegal aliens reside in each state, as well an estimate of the total number of illegal aliens and their children.
Footnotes and endnotes
- Pew Research Center, Hispanic Trends, “Estimated Unauthorized Immigration Population Estimates,” 2014, http://www.pewhispanic.org/interactives/unauthorized-immigrants/
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “Number of I-821D, Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals by Fiscal Year, Quarter, Intake, Biometrics and Case Status: 2012-2017 (December 31)”, https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/USCIS/Resources/Reports%20and%20Studies/Immigration%20Forms%20Data/All%20Form%20Types/DACA/daca_performancedata_fy2017_qtr1.pdf
- Some illegal aliens are temporarily protected against deportation. Most of them are in one of three programs; Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and Cubans who benefit from the “wet-foot-dry-foot executive policy. The first two programs, if allowed to expire would restore beneficiaries to illegal alien status and for that reason the beneficiaries are treated in this study as part of the illegal alien population. The Cuban illegal entrants, on the other hand, are provided permanent legal status under the Cuban Adjustment Act after one year in the country, and are not, therefore, included in our calculation of the illegal alien population, despite the fact that their illegal entry is indistinguishable from the entry of other illegal aliens, and certainly constitutes a negative fiscal impact at the federal and local level.
- O’Brien, Raley, Martin, The Federation for American Immigration Reform, “The Fiscal Burden of Illegal Immigration on United States Taxpayers, 2017, https://fairus.org/issue/publications-resources/fiscal-burden-illegal-immigration-united-states-taxpayers