The Illegal-Immigrant Population Increased Dramatically in Biden’s First Year

In a very real sense, America has lost control of its borders.

By Steven A. Camarota on April 4, 2022

National Review, April 4, 2022

Given the ongoing crisis at our southern border, it seems almost certain that the illegal-immigrant population in the U.S. has been growing — but by how much, exactly? Our latest research shows that the number of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. actually declined during the pandemic year of 2020, but then it rebounded sharply in 2021 with an increase of over 1 million in the last year. This is possibly the largest single-year increase ever, and it has brought the total illegal-immigrant population back to pre-pandemic levels.

Most estimates of the illegal-immigrant population, including those by the DHS, the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), and the Pew Research Center, are based on the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey (ACS), which does capture most illegal immigrants. The number of legal immigrants in the country can be estimated based on administrative data, and these allow researchers to then estimate the number of illegal immigrant in the survey, which is then adjusted upward to reflect undercount. Unfortunately, the Census Bureau was not able to properly collect the 2020 ACS due to Covid-19, and the 2021 ACS will not be out for many months, hence there are no recent estimates of illegal immigrants from the DHS, the CMS, and Pew.

Fortunately, the Current Population Survey (CPS) is still available. The CPS is collected by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, primarily to measure employment. The survey is collected every month and released almost immediately. Unlike the ACS, the CPS “met our standards for accuracy and reliability,” according to BLS. At about 60,000 households, the CPS is smaller (and thus less precise) than the ACS, but the CPS produces population numbers at the national level that generally track with the ACS.

Using the CPS, we find that the number of illegal immigrants in the country fell from 11.5 million in January of 2019 to 10.2 million by January of 2021. However, the population rebounded to 11.5 million by February of 2022. Policies such as Remain in Mexico, which required some asylum applicants to wait south of the border while their applications were processed, and Title 42 public-health expulsions, which returned non-Mexicans apprehended at the border to Mexico due to the Covid emergency, reduced the number of new illegal immigrants. The reduction of temporary visitors (e.g. tourists, guest workers, and foreign students) during Covid almost certainly reduced the number of visa overstayers as well.

Something changed fundamentally at the border around the time President Biden took office. Apprehensions (technically called “encounters”) of illegal immigrants at the southern border increased dramatically, primarily among unaccompanied minors and people in family units. The sudden rush at the border was surely caused in large part by President Biden’s campaign promises to loosen asylum standards, curtail enforcement, and pass an amnesty. These promises created the reasonable belief among prospective migrants that they would be granted entry at the southern border without a visa. With the ending of Remain in Mexico (which was resumed under court order, but only in a very minor way), the scaling back of Title 42 expulsions in 2022, the decision to release hundreds of thousands of people into the country — most of whom are “still here” accounting to DHS secretary Mayorkas — and the suspension of most interior enforcement, the illegal-immigrant population has ballooned.

Of course, almost all estimates of illegal immigrants, including ours, assume that Census Bureau data do not miss enormous numbers of illegal immigrants. More research is definitely needed to assess undercount. That said, there is a lot of indirect evidence that the Census Bureau data do not miss huge numbers of people. As I pointed out in response to a study released a few years ago claiming that 22 million illegal immigrants resided in the U.S., if many millions of people were missed by the Census Bureau, then the number of actual births or school-enrollment numbers, for instance, should be a lot larger than the surveys show. Some illegal immigrants are certainly missed by Census Bureau data. Maybe it is 1 million, perhaps even 2 million. Still, this means there are at most 12 or 13 million illegal immigrants in the country — not 20 or 30 million.

In addition to the indirect evidence that the undercount can’t be that big, every ten years, the bureau spends millions of dollars trying to figure out how many people actually got missed by the previous decennial census by re-canvasing a representative sample of neighborhoods. The results of the 2020 Post-Enumeration Survey, as it is called, shows that the net undercount was 5 percent, or roughly 3 million, for Hispanics. This was for all 62 million Hispanics, the vast majority of whom are U.S.-born or legal immigrants. About three-quarters of illegal immigrants are Hispanic, so again, the notion that the undercount is in the many millions is not supportable. Anyone arguing otherwise needs to cite specific evidence showing that large numbers of people are missed. Simply eyeballing one’s neighborhood or talking with friends and relatives is not enough.

One reason people tend to overestimate the size of the illegal population is that they do not realize how much legal immigration there is. Since 1965, when the law was changed, 43 million legal permanent immigrants have been allowed to settle in this country. It also should be remembered that illegal immigrants collectively have about 5 million U.S.-born children. These children place significant demands on the welfare system, the health-care system, and the public schools. But they are not included in the illegal estimates because they were all awarded U.S. citizenship at birth under the current interpretation of the 14th Amendment.

There can be debate over the size of the illegal-immigrant population, though the largest estimates are simply not plausible. What’s important is that even the most conservative estimates indicate that the scale of illegal immigration is huge, with profound implications for American workers, taxpayers, schools, hospitals, national security, and perhaps most important, the rule of law. Our new analysis indicates that the number of illegal immigrants increased by more than 1.2 million in just the last year. The public many not know all the details about what’s happening, but they are clearly dissatisfied — and they are right to be. In a very real sense, America has lost control of its borders.