INS Estimates 4.0 Million Illegals Present in 1994

Estimate Seen as Low

By David Simcox on June 1, 1994

Immigration Review, no. 18, 1994

United States, by Country of Origin and State of Residence: October 1992 was released in April 1994. The report estimates the total illegal alien population in 1992 at 3.4 million, up from INS' original 1993 estimate of that population at 3.2 million. The report also estimates that the resident population of illegal aliens has grown by 300,000 each year through most of the decade.

The report makes the following estimates and assumptions to reach this figure:

  1. Number of illegal aliens counted in 1980 census: 2.06 millions
  2. Estimated illegal population in 1986: 4.77 millions
  3. Total applicants for legalization: 3.04 millions
  4. Estimated illegals after legalization in 1988: 2.18 millions
  5. Estimated illegals at 1990 census date: 2.63 millions
  6. Estimated illegals in 1992: 3.38 millions

The above numbers show a far more rapid growth of the pool of resident illegal aliens than previously estimated by the U.S. government. Earlier estimates indicated only 100,000 to 200,000 yearly during the past decade. These figures imply an increase between 1980 and 1986 of some 2.7 million unauthorized aliens — 450,000 a year — though INS deducts from this amount the entry during the six-year period of 931,000 Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) amnesty seekers who were subsequently legalized. Even with the SAWs excluded, the new estimate for the annual increment of illegal aliens for this period was 300,000. For the post-legalization period of 1988 to 1992, INS again estimates an annual growth in the pool of illegals of 300,000 yearly.

Such growth implies an illegal population in 1994 of 4.0 million. By 1996 the resident illegal population will reach 4.6 million — the illegal population figure estimated ten years (and 3.0 million legalizations) ago. Even with the modest INS estimates, the United States will be home to just under 6.0 million illegal aliens at the turn of the century unless better control measures are put in place.

The INS report differs from other prevailing assumptions about the illegal population, where it is and how it got here. INS statisticians estimate that 43 percent (1.44 million) of the 3.4 million 1992 population is in California, and 39 percent (1.3 million) of that population nationwide is Mexican. These are well below earlier estimates of 50 percent of illegals living in California and 55 percent being Mexican. Surreptitious entry ("Entry without Inspection — EWI") is no longer the preferred way of defeating U.S. immigration laws. About 52 percent of illegal aliens settling here since 1982 have done so by overstaying their visas. Under these new assumptions, INS concludes there are now 1.4 million resident illegals in California. The state demographic office of the California Department of Finance, however, using its own data and census figures, estimated that there were 2.1 million illegals in the state in undercount of this population of 20-25 percent would bring it to 2.6 million, but does not use that adjusted figure in its calculations. Census experts for the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (SCIRP) in 1980 placed the illegal population at 3.5 million to 5.0 million. Separate estimates of the Select Commission demographer estimated the illegal population at not lower than 4.0 million.1 In 1989 the Urban Institute and Rand Corporation reviewed all estimates and concluded that the illegal population in 1980 had been between 2.5 and 3.5 million.2

The 3.5 million estimate for 1980 by the SCIRP (lower limit) and the Urban Institute (upper limit) is even more convincing now in light of new and significantly larger census and INS estimates of the annual growth of the illegal population. Throughout much of the 1980s the Census Bureau estimated that growth at 100,000 to 200,000 yearly. The INS has now upped that estimate to 300,000 retroactive to at least 1980.

There is no basis, however, for assuming that the illegal population would have grown by only 100,000 to 200,000 a year in the 1970s. Mexico's labor force in the 1970s grew by more than 800,000 a year and other Caribbean basin countries experienced similar growth. The region's job growth in the decade was halting. The economies of most Caribbean states were slowed by the oil shock of 1973, while Mexico experienced slow growth in the mid-1970s. Assuming a flow fully 15 percent lower in the 1970s than in the 1980s, based on the difference in labor force growth in the two decades, migration still would have brought more than 2.5 million illegal settlers here during the 1970s.

Also questionable is the INS estimate of the number of surreptitious entries, or EWIs — 140,000 a year since 1989. An estimated 122,000 of those are from Mexico and three Central American sending countries (El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua), while only 18,000 are estimated to come from the 95 other sending countries considered in the study. Among those 95 countries are such high immigration-demand countries as Canada, China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and other English-speaking West African states, and Iran. Major sending states of illegal aliens in this hemisphere presumably included are Honduras, Haiti, Cuba, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Jamaica and the smaller English-speaking Caribbean islands, and major South American senders Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.

The assumption here is that EWIs are largely confined to the southwest border. Apparently discounted is the lively alien-smuggling traffic by sea through Hawaii and Pacific coast ports, Puerto Rico, South Florida through the Bahamas, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and U.S. gulf ports from Mexico and Central America. (A 1984 State Department report estimated surreptitious maritime entries by Dominicans alone through Puerto Rico at 18,000 annually.) Unauthorized land entries through Canada are underestimated, as are entries by land of non-Mexican/Central American migrants through Mexico.

A review of the numbers of aliens from the 95 countries that were not individually estimated in the INS report indicates a higher figure. The INS Statistical Yearbook for 1992 provides a breakdown by country of aliens under docket control because of entry without inspection. The proportions indicate that 28 percent (39,000) of the 1992 EWIs would have come from the 95 uncalculated countries, rather than the 18,000 estimated by INS. The Yearbook's data on deportations of aliens from the 95 countries who entered without inspection, applied proportionally, similarly suggest that 34,000 would have come from countries other than Mexico and the three Central American countries.

Also overlooked in INS' 300,000 estimate of annual growth in the unauthorized alien population is the effect of the 1986 legislation which facilitated some illegal immigration by making it far more difficult for INS to seize illegals found working on farms. Annual detentions of illegals found on farms averaged 86,000 between 1982 and 1987. Since 1988 those detentions have averaged a little more than 4,000 yearly. Based on estimates of the optimal number of foreign farm workers needed each year to compensate for attrition, maintain an adequate (for growers) pool of workers, and provide for modest growth in production, the stock of illegals in the United States in agriculture has grown by an additional 20,000 annually since 1988 because of the removal of this deterrent.

These alternative assumptions and calculations — beginning with a baseline illegal population of up to 3.5 million in 1980 and an assumed growth of the stock of illegal immigrants since 1988 of up to 340 thousand per year — imply a 1994 population of as many as 5.85 million unauthorized immigrants (see table).

End Notes

1 Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, U.S. Immigration Policy and the National Interest (Washington, DC: author, 1981), 480-84.

2 Undocumented Immigration to the United States: IRCA and the Experience of the 1980s (Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 1990).