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Undocumented Immigrants Aren’t Who You Think They Are

In a prime-time address on Thursday, President Obama laid out his plan to grant work permits to millions of unauthorized immigrants, as part of a broader overhaul of immigration enforcement. Obama says he has the legal authority to carry out the policy without congressional approval, although Republicans are already making plans to fight the changes.

My colleague Hayley Munguia has the details on who will and won’t be affected by the new policy. It’s also worth taking a step back to put the debate into context. The perception of U.S. immigration hasn’t kept up with the fast-changing reality. Immigration from Mexico has been falling for several years, for example, and new arrivals are now more likely to come from Asia than from Latin America. Meanwhile the U.S. Latino population is increasingly native-born.

The unauthorized population is still dominated by Latinos, but it, too, is changing. Below are a few key facts about the more than 11 million people who are in the country illegally. Except where noted, these figures are from the Pew Research Center and the Migration Policy Institute, both nonpartisan organizations whose research has been widely cited by people on all sides of the immigration debate. For more details on how researchers come up with these figures, see my story from July.

The unauthorized population isn’t growing

Pew estimates there were 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States in 2013. That figure has been pretty much flat for the past five years, and is down from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007. In other words, more unauthorized immigrants have left the country in the past six years — voluntarily or through deportation — than have arrived.

The slowdown in illegal immigration is partly the result of the weak U.S. economy, and especially the weak home construction industry, which was a major source of jobs for many migrants. But the flow across the Mexican border, in particular, began to slow before the recession, the result of tighter border security and a falling birthrate in Mexico, which meant there were fewer young Mexicans seeking jobs in the United States.


Not all unauthorized immigrants are Mexican, and not all of them are border-crossers

The debate over illegal immigration tends to focus on people crossing the Rio Grande, but that’s an incomplete picture. Mexicans make up only a narrow majority of unauthorized immigrants — 52 percent in 2012, according to Pew — and both their share and their absolute numbers have been falling. A small but growing share — around 12 percent — of unauthorized immigrants are from Asia.

Most of those Asian immigrants, and many Latin American immigrants as well, likely entered the country legally on tourist, student or other visas. A 2006 Pew study found that 40 percent to 50 percent of unauthorized immigrants entered the country legally and never left, as opposed to crossing the border illegally.

Since Mexican immigrants have, on average, been here longer, they will likely benefit disproportionately from Obama’s new plan. Pew estimates that about two-thirds of those who will qualify for deportation relief under the plan are from Mexico; about 43 percent of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico will qualify, versus about 23 percent of immigrants from other countries.

Most have been here a decade or more

As the influx of new unauthorized immigrants has slowed, the unauthorized population as a whole has become, in Pew’s words, “more settled.” The typical unauthorized immigrant has been here for nearly 13 years, up from about 9 years in 2007. Only 16 percent have been here under five years — an important cutoff because Obama’s plan doesn’t apply to anyone who’s been here for less time than that.


Unauthorized immigrants live across the U.S.

Unsurprisingly, unauthorized immigrants are concentrated in states along the U.S.-Mexico border. California and Texas together account for more than 4 million of the 11 million total. But there are significant unauthorized populations in nearly every state. Moreover, the geography of illegal immigration is changing. As more unauthorized immigrants have been here longer, and as fewer new ones arrive, the population is gradually shifting away from the border. California, Arizona and New Mexico have all seen their unauthorized populations shrink in recent years, while Idaho, Nebraska and several East Coast states have seen an increase.

Most have jobs, but many are poor

Since most people who come to the U.S. illegally do so to work, it isn’t surprising that most have jobs. About 65 percent of unauthorized immigrants over age 15 are employed, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a higher share than for the U.S. population as a whole. A large percentage work in construction, hospitality, food service and other sectors often associated with immigrant labor. But unauthorized immigrants can be found in virtually every industry.

A majority of unauthorized immigrants are struggling financially. Nearly a third live in poverty, and nearly two-thirds earn less than twice the federal poverty line. Two-thirds lack health insurance, and less than a third own their own homes.

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.