The number of unauthorized immigrants peaked in 2007 at roughly 12 million


Takeaways

  1. After decades of rapid growth, illegal immigration into the U.S. has fallen since its 2007 peak.
  2. The declines remain tepid as the decrease in share from Mexico has been mostly offset by growth from Asia, Central America, and sub-Saharan Africa.
  3. Roughly 25 percent of current U.S. immigrants remain unauthorized.

According to Pew Research Center, the unauthorized immigrant population in the U.S.—now slightly above 11 million—has fallen and subsequently stabilized since 2007. Exact numbers differ, but even the US Department of Homeland Security noted declines in illegal immigration as far back as 2012.

And while Mexicans still constitute 52 percent of U.S. unauthorized immigrants, their share has been steadily declining. Plugging the gap, and therefore slowing the decline in overall illegal immigration, has been an influx of immigrants from Asia, Central America, and sub-Saharan Africa.

Over the past decade, we’ve continually authorized increasing numbers of border agents, the miles of fencing and barriers have more than doubled, unmanned aircraft systems have more than doubled, and ground surveillance has almost doubled.

Recently, the Department of Homeland Security reported that “illegal migration into this country has dropped considerably.” According to the White House, “the number of people trying to cross our border illegally is at its lowest level since the 1970s.”

It seems as if popular perception of illegal immigration in the U.S. has yet to catch up with reality. According to Gallup, 59% of Americans were “worried a great deal or a fair amount” about illegal immigration in 2016—48% of Democrats and 78% of Republicans.

So while anxiety has fallen since the peak years of illegal immigration—where roughly 70 percent of Americans reported being worried—the topic at large seems to be stuck in the headlines. Over the past 15 years, the idea that illegal immigration is worrisome has always been a majority view.

It’s not difficult to see why Americans’ views are resistant to change. According to Pew Research Center, “The recent relative stability in the estimated size of the U.S. unauthorized immigrant population is a contrast to previous periods.”

Interestingly, the U.S. government didn’t attempt to keep track of illegal immigration statistics until the 1970s. A 1982 GAO report explains why:

The illegal alien population is constantly in flux. Individuals enter and exit this population daily by making covert border crossings, by taking unauthorized employment, by failing to leave when their visas expire, by dying, and as a result of INS [Immigration and Naturalizations Service] decisions. Policymakers need to know the size of the population at particular moments and the volume of immigration over periods of time. Although illegal immigration has been a concern since the introduction of immigration curbs in 1875, deliberate attempts to estimate the population size reliably were not made until the 1970’s.

The accurate dissemination of relevant data seems to be an obvious plus. But sometimes, knowledge is counter-productive.

In March of 2017, the new commander of the D.C. Police Youth and Family Services Division made publicizing missing persons cases a priority. The goal was to increase the public’s knowledge and improve transparency.

Unfortunately, the new availability of data made it seem as if there was a spike in D.C. kidnappings. Teen Vogue ran a headline titled “Most media outlets aren’t reporting on the disappearance of Black and Latinx D.C. teens.” Vibe reported that “10 Black and Latinx teens missing in D.C. and the media is silent.”

In reality, D.C. police sources say there has actually been a decrease in missing persons reports over the last several years. But the recent publication of ongoing data made people believe that these cases were newfound, growing events.

Perhaps the pervasive coverage of illegal immigration, aided by the accurate compilation and dissemination of relevant datasets, has created a similar phenomenon. Sometimes you just can’t win.


Learn More

  1. Overall Number of U.S. Unauthorized Immigrants Holds Steady Since 2009 — Pew Research Center
  2. Why Is the Undocumented-Immigrant Population Dropping? — The Atlantic
  3. Immigration Data & Statistics — Department of Homeland Security