The Pew Study on Illegal Immigration, Part V: Beyond the Headlines

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on September 10, 2010

At the heart of the Pew report is the claim that, to the extent the statistical estimates and weighting are correct, the overall estimated numbers of illegal immigrants in the United States has declined. At least, that is what the Pew report's title suggests is its most noteworthy finding. And it is point that almost all news accounts emphasize.

However there is much more to the report than what has been reported. In this entry, I would like to "stipulate" the general accuracy of the report's numbers for the purpose of further inquiring into what the report says that has been largely overlooked.

One eye-catching finding is the following: "despite the recent decline, the population of unauthorized immigrants was nearly a third larger (32%) in 2009 than in 2000, when it numbered 8.4 million. The size of this group has tripled since 1990, when it was 3.5 million.” (p. iii)

So, the more important question might be not why illegal immigration may have declined, but rather what accounts for the explosion of this group since 1990. In another Pew study, their chief demographer said, "A major demographic story of the 1990s is a broad increase in the unauthorized population.” (p. 10, emphasis added) An analysis on what specifically caused the possible recent decline in illegal immigration numbers is worth having, but not at the expense of remembering that the surge in illegal immigration deserves its own focus, because in it may lie clues as to how it can be avoided.

Then there is the startling finding that, "Among men who are working age – 18-64 – unauthorized immigrants are more likely to be in the labor force than are legal immigrants or the U.S. born. In 2009, 93% of working-age unauthorized immigrant men were in the labor force, compared with 86% of working-age legal immigrant men and 81% of working-age men who were born in the United States.” (p. 8, emphasis added)

It would seem that of all three working-age groups – illegal immigrants, legal immigrants and ordinary Americans – illegal immigrants are the closest to full employment, in spite of the recession.

And there is finally this finding: "almost four-in-five children of unauthorized immigrant parents are born in the United States." (p. 6) Moreover, "the population of children with at least one unauthorized immigrant parent was 42% larger in 2009 than in 2000, when it numbered 3.6 million." (p. 7)

An earlier Pew report estimated that 5.1 million children lived in families with at least one unauthorized parent and that 4 million of these were born in the United States and thus citizens while 1.1 million were brought here and are therefore undocumented.

Recent news accounts of so-called "birth tourism" of women from China, Turkey, and other countries who fly here to have babies have recently been in the news in debates about "anchor babies," those children born here who automatically become citizens and thus provide an avenue for entry, or a hedge against removal.

The Pew study suggests that as upsetting as "birth tourism" might be and however easily it might be avoided by administrative measures, it is the rapid rise in the number of children born to parents or a parent who are illegally in the country and who represent a hedge against deportation that is the real and growing problem. The Obama administration has already begun canceling the deportation notices of illegal immigrants married to American citizens. The existence of children can only add to that impulse.

These five-plus million children create difficult entangling facts on the ground for those who would like to see American immigration laws enforced. It is a set of facts, growing in size and adding complexity to the immigration debate. And it is a fact that enforcement advocates will have to come to grips with soon or latter. Sooner would be better.

Those who read only the title of the new Pew report or the news stories about it will miss its deeper stories – the relative job success of illegal immigrants in time of recession, and the continuing rise, not the decline, of families with mixed legal/illegal immigration status.

Both of these stories remained hidden to those who don't read the report, but they are important nonetheless, because they throw light on the key question raised but not answered by the report: Why has illegal immigration declined?