How many illegal immigrants are there in the United States? Depends on who you ask and when you ask it.
The Department of Homeland Security calculates about 11.6 million and the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, estimates about 12 million. The Urban Institute, a think tank that focuses on minority issues, believes it is a slightly lower figure, about 10 million.
Meanwhile, the global investment firm Bear Stearns stunned many people a couple of years ago with an analysis that put the figure as high as 20 million, based in part on remittances sent back to home countries.
Groups seeking stronger immigration enforcement believe that most calculations are woefully low.
A group called Californians for Population Stabilization, which contends that high levels of immigration are ruining the quality of life in that state, released a report last week with studies that estimated there are from 20 million to 38 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights organization, said that inflated calculations start to appear when the immigration issue stirs up in Congress.
Munoz argues that there is a simple way to make accurate calculations of this population. Her group takes the total number of foreign-born people in the United States counted by the Census and subtracts the total number of legal immigrants and naturalized citizens, she said. The Census does not ask people their legal status.
Jeffrey S. Passel, a senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center who specializes in the Latino population, says that his estimate of about 12 million illegal immigrants includes an adjustment for those not counted by the Census and is backed by comparisons with the number of immigrant children in schools, the number of housing units in the country, and the number of people in the workforce.
Passel said some of the high calculations are based on unscientific methods, such as assuming that a certain number of illegal immigrants get by the Border Patrol for every one that gets caught. The high estimates also fail to take into account that the same immigrants are often caught several times trying to cross the border, therefore inflating the totals, he added.
But others say that the main data used in many estimates—the Census figures—can’t be trusted because they are based on voluntary information, and illegal immigrants are often afraid to come forward or have no motivation to provide accurate figures.
Diana Hull, president of Californians for Population Stabilization, said that in Santa Barbara, for example, families of 20 to 30 illegal immigrants live in a two- or three-bedroom home and would have no reason to give accurate information to the Census.
The highest estimate in the report by Californians for Population Stabilization is by James Walsh, a former associate general counsel of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was split into several agencies under the Department of Homeland Security.
Walsh claims there are 38 million illegal immigrants in the United States. His total is based on an assumption that three illegal immigrants succeed in entering the United States for every one that gets caught. He said that his calculation is conservative because veteran Border Patrol officers say it’s more like five or seven who cross the border for each one apprehended.
James Gimpel, a University of Maryland professor and co-author of the book “Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform,” said the use of the higher numbers is not surprising.
“Americans probably should be scared, no matter what the numbers are,” he said. “This is a serious and growing problem.”