March 5, 2013

Immigration: Key Data Points from Pew Research

Americans overwhelmingly believe the nation’s immigration policy is in need of sweeping changes, although there is little agreement on specific approaches.

Our May 2013 survey found that 75% believed immigration policy needed at least major changes, with 35% saying it needed to be “completely rebuilt.” Yet the broad public agreement that immigration policy should be revamped was not matched by consensus on how to deal with illegal and legal immigration.

A solid majority of Americans say undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. who meet certain requirements show be allowed to stay legally, but there is less support for a path to citizenship.

Broad support for path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, less for citizenship

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of Americans believe that undocumented immigrants should have a way to legally stay in the U.S. if they meet certain requirements, but only 46% support a path to citizenship, according to our February survey. About eight-in-ten (81%) Democrats say undocumented immigrants should have a way of staying legally, as do 64% of Republicans. Over half (56%) of Democrats support a path to citizenship, a view shared by only 32% of Republicans.

English proficiency tops the requirements that Americans most think undocumented immigrants should have to meet in order to stay in the U.S. legally.

Our May 2013 survey found that 73% of Americans said there should be a way for people in the United States illegally to remain in this country if they met certain requirements. Among those holding this view, 44% said illegal immigrants should be allowed to apply for citizenship, but 25% of the public said they should only be allowed to apply for legal residency. A quarter said they should not be allowed to stay legally.

There is a wide partisan gap over the importance of passing new immigration legislation.

Wide partisan gap over importance of passing immigration legislationThe public is almost evenly divided on the importance of passing significant new immigration legislation, according to our February survey. Six-in-ten Democrats feel it is important to do so compared with 46% of Republicans.

The annual number of deportations reached a record high in 2012.

Deportations reached a record high in 2012

The annual number of deportations reached a record 419,384 in fiscal year 2012, according to data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The public is evenly divided on whether the increased number of deportations is a good or a bad thing.

Public divided about deportations

Americans are split at 45% each when it comes to whether they see the increase in deportations as a good or bad thing, according to our February survey. Democrats see it as a bad thing by a 53% to 37% margin, while Republicans say it is a good thing  by 55% to 40%.

Hispanic and Asian Americans believe that getting relief from the threat of deportation for unauthorized immigrants is more important than creating a pathway to citizenship.


By 55% to 35%, Hispanics say that they think being able to live and work in the United States legally without the threat of deportation is more important for unauthorized immigrants than a pathway to citizenship, according to a survey conducted in October. Asian Americans hold a similar view, albeit by a smaller margin—49% to 44%.

Overall attitudes about immigrants in the U.S. have become more positive than negative, despite the nation’s struggling economy.

Currently, 49% agree with the statement “immigrants today strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents,” according to our March survey. Somewhat fewer (41%) agree with an opposing statement: “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.” Our survey in May found no consensus on whether the level of legal immigration should be increased or decreased – 36% said they should be decreased, 25% favored increasing them and 31% wanted to keep immigration at present levels.

Three-quarters of Americans believe legal status for undocumented immigrants would help the economy, far more than those who say it would hurt it.

Our June survey found that large majorities of the public agree with a number of statements – pro and con – about the possible impact of granting legal status to people in the U.S. illegally. Fully 77% agree – including 57% who strongly agree – that deporting all undocumented immigrants would be unrealistic.  About half (51%) say that “granting undocumented immigrants legal status would take jobs from U.S. citizens.”

The sharp decline in the U.S. population of unauthorized immigrants that accompanied the 2007-2009 recession has bottomed out, and the number may be rising again.

KDP_Unauth_immigThe estimated number of unauthorized immigrants peaked at 12.2 million in 2007 and fell to 11.3 million in 2009, breaking a rising trend that had held for decades. As of March 2012, 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants were living in the United States, according to a new preliminary Pew Research Center estimate. Although there are indications the number of unauthorized immigrants may be rising, the 2012 population estimate is the midpoint of a wide range of possible values and in a statistical sense is no different from the 2009 estimate. (Senior demographer Jeffrey Passel describes the methodology behind the estimates in this interview).

Although our study found a decline in unauthorized immigration in recent years, a majority of Americans believe illegal immigration is higher than 10 years ago, according to our May survey.

A majority of Mexican immigrants who are in the U.S. legally and are eligible to become citizens have not taken that path for a variety of reasons.

Percent of Latino legal permanent residents who say ... is the main reason they have not yet naturalized

We have also examined the issue of naturalization. Nearly two-thirds of the 5.4 million legal immigrants from Mexico who are eligible to become citizens of the United States have not yet taken that step. Their rate of naturalization—36%—is only half that of legal immigrants from all other countries combined, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data.

Net migration to the United States from Mexico has fallen to zero, and may have reversed.



Our spring 2012 report found that the largest wave of immigration in history from a single country to the United States has come to a standstill. After four decades that brought 12 million immigrants from Mexico, most of whom arrived illegally, the net migration flow has stopped and may have even reversed.

A majority of Mexicans say they would not move to the U.S. even if they had the means and opportunity to do so.

While a survey conducted in March found that 61% of Mexicans would not move to the U.S. even if they could do so, a sizable minority (35%) said they would move to the U.S. if they could, including 20% who say they would emigrate without authorization. The survey also found that Mexicans are less likely than they were a year ago to say that people from their country who move to the U.S. have a better life there.

See a slideshow of key findings in the Pew Research Center estimates of the unauthorized immigrant population and an interactive chart of population trends.

Read more Pew Research reports on Immigration.

Index to other Key Data Point fact sheets