The US Undocumented Population Continues Its Multi-Year Decline

The Center for Migration Studies (CMS) has released its latest report on the U.S. undocumented population, authored by Robert Warren, the former Director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Statistics Division. The report derives its estimates of the undocumented from 2014 statistics on the foreign-born from the US Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS). It does not draw policy conclusions, but provides findings on the undocumented by country of origin and U.S. state. On a national level, it reports that:

• The undocumented population declined by more than one million between 2008 and 2014, falling below 11 million in 2014 for the first time since 2004.
• The number of undocumented US residents began to decline prior to the onset of the Great Recession and continued to fall during the economic recovery.
• The decline has been largely driven by a decrease in the Mexican-born undocumented, from 6.6 to six million between 2010 and 2014.
• The overall foreign born population has grown while the undocumented population has declined, which indicates that the number and percentage of legally present foreign born persons, including naturalized citizens, has increased.

Proponents of legal immigrants (on both sides of the debate) should welcome this latter development.

An earlier CMS report, based on 2013 ACS statistics, found that the growth in the undocumented population began to slow in the mid-2000s and that by 2008 roughly as many people were leaving this population as joining it. In each year between 2008 and 2014, more US residents left the undocumented population than joined it, which explains the overall decline in this population.

The earlier report also found that 60 percent of the undocumented had resided in the United States for 10 years or more, including 1.9 million for at least 20 years. The average length of residence of the undocumented will continue to increase into the foreseeable future. The 2013 study also found that more than one-half of the four million persons eligible for the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program and the 1.5 million eligible for the expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program entered the United States prior to the year 2000.

What to make of these numbers from a policy perspective? The CMS report suggests that the United States seems to have turned a corner on the undocumented population and, for a variety of reasons, should not witness the kind of large-scale unauthorized migration flows that it experienced in the 1990s and early 2000s. Indeed, the multi-year trend has been an overall decline in this population. As CMS's 2013 report shows, a far higher percentage of visa over-stayers now join the ranks of the undocumented each year (58 percent in 2012) than persons who cross US borders without authorization.

At the same time, undocumented persons with long tenure and strong family ties will not likely leave the country or secure status in large numbers. Thus, a path to legal status and citizenship for a large percentage of the undocumented constitutes the most effective and sound way to reduce this population. Of course, with far fewer out-of-status residents, DHS's massive enforcement infrastructure could be used to target primarily non-citizens who represent a security or public safety threat, to regulate US borders, and to tackle the challenge of visa over-stayers.