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U.S. Immigration - Lesson 1 and Mexicans decline to less than half the U.S. unauthorized immigrant population for the first time

Author: Mark Hugo Lopez, Director of Global Migration and Demography Research, Pew Research Center

Lopez, Mark Hugo. “Lesson 1 📚 : Today's Immigrants.” Mini-Course, Pew Research Center, 31 July 2019,
Passel, Jeffrey S., and D’Vera Cohn. “Mexicans Decline to Less than Half the U.S. Unauthorized Immigrant Population for the First Time.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 12 June 2019,


Who are today’s U.S. immigrants?

The United States has more immigrants than any other nation in the world. In 2017, there were 44.4 million immigrants in the country, meaning almost one in every seven people living in the U.S. was born in another country and was not a U.S. citizen at birth. These immigrants include both residents with legal status and those in the country illegally.

Mexicans are the largest group, but not among new immigrants.

11.6 million U.S. immigrants were born in Mexico, as of 2016.

The U.S. foreign-born population is diverse, representing the majority of the world’s countries. But one country – Mexico – stands out. More than 11 million U.S. immigrants were born in Mexico, putting it at the top of birth countries. There are nearly as many immigrants from Mexico as from all of South and East Asia.

The next most popular birth nation is China (2.9 million), followed by India (2.6 million). All of the top 10 birth countries are either in Latin America or Asia.

Mexicans had been the largest group among new arrivals to the U.S. over the past three decades, but in recent years that has changed as immigration from Mexico has slowed. Today, India and China send as many immigrants to the U.S. each year as Mexico, reflecting a broader shift away from Latin America and toward Asia among new immigrant arrivals.

Most live in Western and Southern states.

34% of immigrants live in the West, as of 2016.

Immigrants tend to be concentrated in certain states and regions. That’s partly because immigrants often move near family members or other people from their home countries. Or, they come for employment that is concentrated in certain areas – agriculture or technology jobs, for example. More than six-in-ten immigrants live in only 20 U.S. metropolitan areas, even as those areas are home to just 37% of the total U.S. population.

California, Texas and New York have the nation’s largest immigrant populations, together accounting for nearly half (45%) of the country’s foreign-born residents in 2017. The regions with the most immigrants are the West and South.

Demographically, they differ from those born in the U.S.

Compared with people born in the U.S., immigrants as a whole are more likely to be married, to have lower overall education levels and to be poor. However, there often are wide differences among immigrants by country of origin, as well as among those born in the same country. For example, immigrants from Mexico and Central America are less likely to have graduated from high school than those born in the U.S. But immigrants from South and East Asia, Europe, Canada, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa were more likely than U.S.-born residents to have a bachelor’s or advanced degree.

A growing majority of immigrants have lived in the U.S. at least 15 years. About half of immigrants ages 5 and older are proficient English speakers. That includes 16% who only speak English at home and 36% who speak another language at home but speak English very well.

More than 28 million are working in the U.S.

Immigrants are more likely to be of working age (18 to 64) than people born in the U.S. In fact, they make up 17% of U.S. workers, higher than their share of the total population (14%). Immigrants are concentrated in some types of jobs – for example, agriculture, construction and service – but are not a majority in any industry.

Most have lawful status, but about a quarter do not.

About one-in-four U.S. immigrants are unauthorized, as of 2015.

The nation’s 35.2 million lawful immigrants include naturalized citizens, permanent residents (that is, immigrants with green cards) and immigrants who have temporary visas for work, school or other reasons. The nation’s 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants mainly arrived illegally or stayed after their temporary visas expired.

Today’s lawful and unauthorized immigrants often live in the same communities (and sometimes in the same homes), but there are important differences between them. We’ll explore those next [in U.S. Immigration – Lesson 2].

Mexicans decline to less than half the U.S. unauthorized immigrant population for the first time

Number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. declined over the past decade

The number of Mexican unauthorized immigrants in the United States declined so sharply over the past decade that they no longer are the majority of those living in the country illegally, according to new Pew Research Center estimates based on government data. In 2017, there were 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., including 4.9 million Mexicans.

The decrease in the Mexican born was the major factor driving down the overall population of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., which in 2017 was 1.7 million below its peak of 12.2 million in 2007.

The number of Mexican unauthorized immigrants declined because more left the U.S. than arrived. Mexicans remain a much larger percentage of all unauthorized immigrants than those from any other birth country. But their 47% share of U.S. unauthorized immigrants in 2017 amounted to less than a majority for the first time since the beginning of a long era of growth in illegal immigration a half century ago. That rise began after passage of a major overhaul of immigration policy in 1965, which imposed the first limits on immigrationfrom Western Hemisphere countries, including Mexico, and coincided with the end of the Bracero program that had allowed temporary farm workers from Mexico to work legally in the U.S.

The number of Mexican unauthorized immigrants has fallen by 2 million since its peak of 6.9 million in 2007 and was lower in 2017 than in any year since 2001. Similarly, the number of apprehensions of Mexicans at the U.S. border also has fallen over the decade, a trend that began even earlier. In fact, apprehensions of non-Mexicans outnumbered those of Mexicans for the past three fiscal years, according to federal statistics.

As the number of Mexicans decreased, unauthorized immigrants from other parts of the world increased. There were 5.5 million non-Mexican unauthorized immigrants in 2017, compared with 5.3 million in 2007. The non-Mexican number also ticked up from 2016 to 2017, offsetting the decline of Mexicans. As a result, the overall population of unauthorized immigrants statistically did not change in 2017 from the year before; the total in both years was the lowest since 2004.

The decline in unauthorized immigrants from Mexico and rise from other parts of the world is one sign of a change in how recent arrivals to this population enter the country. A growing share of U.S. unauthorized immigrants do not cross the border illegally, but probably arrive with legal visas and overstay their required departure date. These “likely overstays” have made up a large majority of unauthorized immigrant arrivals since 2010, according to Pew Research Center analysis.

The Center’s estimate of unauthorized immigrants includes 1.5 million or more people who have temporary permission to stay in the U.S. but could be subject to deportation by changes in government policy. In 2017, they included about 320,000 people from 10 nations with Temporary Protected Status, about 700,000 beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and a rising number of people who have applied for asylum and are awaiting a ruling.

Unauthorized immigrants are a quarter of the U.S. foreign-born population

As the number of unauthorized immigrants shrank by 14% from 2007 to 2017, the U.S. lawful immigrant population continued to grow. During this period, the population of lawful U.S. immigrants – citizens and noncitizens, on permanent and temporary visas – rose by almost a quarter, to 35.2 million.

Unauthorized immigrants were 23% of the 45.6 million foreign-born residents in the U.S. in 2017.

Despite the decline over the decade, the number of unauthorized immigrants in 2017 was triple the 3.5 million in 1990.

Rising numbers from Asia and Central America

Estimated unauthorized immigrant total declines or holds steady from most regions

The number of unauthorized immigrants rose over the 2007-2017 decade from two birth regions: Asia and Central America. The numbers declined over the past decade from two others: South America and the combined regions of Europe and Canada. The decline was statistically significant among European-born unauthorized immigrants, but not among those from Canada.

Among the 20 birth countries with the largest number of U.S. unauthorized immigrants, there were statistically significant increases in five from 2007 to 2017. Reflecting the growth in unauthorized immigrants from Central America, they included the three Northern Triangle nations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, a trend also displayed in rising apprehensions of people from those countries at the border. India and Venezuela also had increases in their U.S. populations of unauthorized immigrants over the past decade.

However, looking at change from a year earlier, Brazil was the only large birth nation whose total unauthorized immigrant population in the U.S. grew by a statistically significant amount from 2016 to 2017.

Unauthorized immigrant totals for largest birth countries

Among largest birth countries, unauthorized immigrant totals rose from Central America and India since 2007 but fell from Mexico

Large birth nations with unauthorized immigrant population declines over the decade, in addition to Mexico, included Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

There may have been changes in unauthorized immigrant populations from other birth regions and countries, but they were not statistically significant.

Increases in five states and declines in a dozen others

Unauthorized immigrant populations changed in 17 states over the past decades

There were five states where unauthorized immigrant populations grew from 2007 to 2017 and 12 where they declined. States with growth included Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Those with declines included five of the six states with the largest unauthorized immigrant populations: California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey and New York (but not Texas, which had no statistically significant change). The other states with fewer unauthorized immigrants in 2017 than in 2007 were Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon.

Other states may have had changes, but they were not statistically significant.

Estimates of unauthorized immigrant population for states

Estimates of unauthorized immigrant population, by state, 2007 and 2017

Estimates of unauthorized immigrant population, by state, 2007 and 2017, continued

How did we estimate the U.S. unauthorized immigrant population?

Pew Research Center bases the estimates in this post on a “residual method” similar to those employed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics and nongovernmental organizations, such as the Center for Migration Studies and the Migration Policy Institute. Those organizations’ estimates are generally consistent with ours. Our estimates also align with official U.S. data sources, including birth records, school enrollment figures and tax data, as well as Mexican censuses and surveys.

The first step in our method is to use U.S. census counts and government surveys, such as the American Community Survey, to calculate how many immigrants live in the U.S. in a particular year. Next, we use official counts of immigrant admissions and other demographic data (death rates, for example) to determine how many of these immigrants live in the U.S. legally. Then we subtract those lawful immigrants from the total to get an estimate of the unauthorized immigrant population.

Based on experience and research, we know the census counts and other official surveys tend to miss some people. Unauthorized immigrants are especially likely to be missed. Therefore, we do a further assessment of potential undercounts or undercoverage. Based on this additional research, our final estimate of the U.S. unauthorized immigrant population includes an upward adjustment for undercount. (Our 1990 estimate comes from work by Robert Warren and John Robert Warren; details can be found here.)

The term “unauthorized immigrant” reflects standard and customary usage by many academic researchers and policy analysts; it generally has been the term used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (Office of Immigration Statistics). Other terms such as undocumented or illegal immigrants also have been used to describe this population.

For more details, see the Methodology section of this previously published report.

Long-term residents outnumber more recent arrivals

Increase in recent arrivals from Northern Triangle and Asia, decrease from Mexico

The decline in unauthorized immigrants over the decade is largely due to decreases in new arrivals to the U.S., especially by Mexicans (although some unauthorized immigrants also have left, died or were deported). As a result, the unauthorized immigrant population in the U.S. increasingly is made up of longer-term residents.

The typical unauthorized immigrant adult has lived in the U.S. for 15 years

In 2017, the typical unauthorized immigrant adult had lived in the U.S. for 15 years. That is the longest median duration of residence since 1995, when Pew Research Center estimates began.

In 2017, only 20% of unauthorized immigrant adults lived in the U.S. for five years or less, down from 30% a decade earlier. About two-thirds of unauthorized immigrants have been in the U.S. for more than 10 years; a decade earlier, less than half had.

The large drop in new arrivals is almost entirely due to a drop in the number of Mexican unauthorized immigrants coming to the U.S. In 2017, Mexicans accounted for 20% of unauthorized immigrants who came to the U.S. in the previous five years, compared with 52% in 2007. This represents a decrease in the average annual inflow of Mexican unauthorized immigrants, from about 375,000 per year in 2002-2007 to about 90,000 per year for 2012-2017. For other regions of birth, the average annual inflows did not change significantly, but the shares of the total increased due to declining Mexican arrivals.

Fewer unauthorized immigrants in the workforce than a decade ago

Number of unauthorized immigrants in U.S. workforce ticks down

The number of unauthorized immigrants in the labor force – working or looking for work – declined to 7.6 million in 2017, less than the total of the previous year and notably less than in 2007, when they were 8.2 million.

Unauthorized immigrants made up 4.6% of the labor force in 2017, down from 5.4% in 2007.

Correction (June 24, 2019): A previous version of the chart “Mexicans are no longer the majority” gave an incorrect number of unauthorized immigrants from countries other than Mexico in 1990. There were 1.5 million.

Additional resources:

Interactive: Unauthorized immigrant population trends for states, birth countries and regions

Video: How we estimate the U.S. unauthorized immigrant population


Jeffrey S. Passel is a senior demographer at Pew Research Center.

D’Vera Cohn is a senior writer/editor focusing on immigration and demographics at Pew Research Center.

DMU Timestamp: August 05, 2019 17:47

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