Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Unauthorized Immigrants: Length of Residency, Patterns of Parenthood


Nearly two-thirds of the 10.2 million unauthorized adult immigrants in the United States have lived in this country for at least 10 years and nearly half are parents of minor children, according to new estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center.

These estimates are based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s March 2010 Current Population Survey, augmented with the Center’s analysis of the demographic characteristics of the unauthorized immigrant population using a “residual estimation methodology”1 that the Center has employed for many years.

The characteristics of this population have become a source of renewed interest in the wake of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s recent endorsement of a proposal to create a path for unauthorized immigrants to gain legal status if they have lived in the country for a long period of time, have children in the U.S., pay taxes and belong to a church. Several of Gingrich’s opponents for the Republican presidential nomination have criticized the proposal as a form of amnesty that would encourage more immigrants to come to the U.S. illegally.

The Pew Hispanic analysis finds that 35% of unauthorized adult immigrants have resided in the U.S. for 15 years or more; 28% for 10 to 14 years; 22% for 5 to 9 years; and 15% for less than five years.

The share that has been in the country at least 15 years has more than doubled since 2000, when about one-in-six (16%) unauthorized adult immigrants had lived here for that duration. By the same token, the share of unauthorized adult immigrants who have lived in the country for less than five years has fallen by half during this period—from 32% in 2000 to 15% in 2010.

The rising share of unauthorized immigrants who have been in the U.S. for a long duration reflects the fact that the sharpest growth in this population occurred during the late 1990s and early 2000s—and that the inflow has slowed down significantly in recent years, as the U.S. economy has sputtered and border enforcement has tightened. It also reflects the fact that relatively few long-duration unauthorized immigrants have returned to their countries of origin.

Family Status

The Pew Hispanic analysis also finds that nearly half (46%) of unauthorized adult immigrants today—about 4.7 million people—are parents of minor children. By contrast, just 38% of legal immigrant adults and 29% of U.S.-born adults are parents of minor children.

Much of this disparity results from the fact that unauthorized immigrants are younger than other groups of adults in the U.S. and more likely to be in their child-bearing and child-rearing years. The median age of unauthorized immigrant adults is 36.2 years old, which is about a decade younger than the median age of legal immigrant adults (46.1) and U.S. native adults (46.5). The age variation accounts for 78% of the difference in the shares of unauthorized immigrants and U.S. natives who are parents.2

Unauthorized immigrants make up 28% of the country’s foreign-born population and 3.7% of the overall population. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that a total of 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants, including people younger than 18, live in the U.S. This figure is lower than the 2007 peak of 12 million such immigrants. The recent decrease followed a two-decade period of growth, including a rise in the population from 8.4 million in 2000.

The decrease has occurred in part because of reduced flows into the U.S. among Mexicans, who constitute 58%—or 6.5 million—of the unauthorized immigrant population. About 150,000 unauthorized immigrants from Mexico came annually to the U.S. from March 2007 to March 2009, down 70% from the annual rates during the first half of the decade. As for outflow, the number of Mexican migrants who voluntarily return to Mexico has stayed somewhat steady, but removals (deportations) are on the rise. There were almost 390,000 removals (deportations) in fiscal 2010, or more than twice as many as in 2000, according to the Department of Homeland Security. About 73% of deportees in 2010 originally came from Mexico.

About 5 million unauthorized adult immigrants—49%—are in families with minor children.3 Along with the approximately 1 million unauthorized immigrants who are children, an additional 4.5 million people younger than 18 were born in the U.S. to at least one unauthorized immigrant parent. While the population of unauthorized immigrant children has decreased from a peak of 1.6 million in 2005, the number of U.S.-born children with at least one unauthorized immigrant parent has more than doubled since 2000.

Overall, at least 9 million people are in “mixed-status” families that include at least one unauthorized adult and at least one U.S.-born child. This makes up 54% of the 16.6 million people in families with at least one unauthorized immigrant. There are 400,000 unauthorized immigrant children in such families who have U.S.-born siblings.

Attendance at Religious Services

Additional details about the characteristics of Hispanic unauthorized immigrants—who comprise 81% of the unauthorized immigrant population—are available from the Pew Hispanic Center’s 2010 National Survey of Latinos, a nationwide survey of more than 1,300 Hispanic adults conducted from August 17 through September 19, 2010. The survey includes responses from Hispanic adults who say they are neither U.S. citizens nor legal residents—a group which closely aligns with the unauthorized immigrant population.4

According to the 2010 NSL, nearly four-in-ten (39%) Hispanic adults who are not citizens or legal permanent residents say they attend religious services weekly. An additional 23% say they attend services at least once or twice a month. And one-in-five (19%) say they attend services seldom or never.

Latinos who are not citizens or legal residents are not much different in how frequently they attend religious services when compared with other Latinos or the general U.S. population. Among foreign-born Latinos who are naturalized citizens or legal permanent residents, 45% attend religious services on at least a weekly basis. Among U.S.-born Latinos, 37% attend on at least a weekly basis. And among the general U.S. population, 38% attend religious services on at least a weekly basis.

Public Opinion on Immigration Policy

The 2010 NSL also explored public opinion among Latinos regarding immigration policy (Lopez, Morin and Taylor, 2010). According to the survey, Latinos who are not citizens or legal residents are supportive of a path to citizenship—91% favor providing a way for unauthorized immigrants to gain citizenship if they pay fines, have jobs and pass background checks. Among all Latinos, 86% support a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, with these conditions. And among all Americans, 72% support a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants with these conditions (Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 2011).

The 2010 NSL also found that among Latino adults who are not citizens or legal residents, 88% disapprove of workplace raids, 74% believe that the federal government should enforce the nation’s immigration laws rather than local police, 71% disapprove of building more fences on the nation’s borders, and nearly all (95%) disapprove of laws like Arizona’s SB 1070 (Lopez, Morin and Taylor, 2010).

About this Report

This report focuses on the unauthorized immigrant population in the United States. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates the unauthorized immigrant population using the “residual method,” a well-developed and widely accepted technique that is based on official government data. For more details, see “Unauthorized Immigrant Population: National and State Trends, 2010” by Jeffrey Passel and D’Vera Cohn (2011).

In this report, data come mainly from the March 2010 Current Population Survey (CPS), conducted jointly by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau. It is best known as the source for monthly unemployment statistics. Each March, the CPS sample size and questionnaire are expanded to produce additional data on the foreign-born population and other topics. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates make adjustments to the government data to compensate for undercounting of some groups, and therefore its population totals differ somewhat from the ones the government uses.

The report also uses the Pew Hispanic Center’s 2010 National Survey of Latinos (NSL). The survey was conducted August 17 through September 19, 2010, among a randomly selected, nationally representative sample of 1,375 Latino adults. The survey was conducted in both English and Spanish on cellular as well as landline telephones. For more details on the 2010 NSL methodology, see “Latinos and the 2010 Elections: Strong Support for Democrats; Weak Voter Motivation” by Mark Hugo Lopez (2010).

A Note on Terminology

The term “unauthorized immigrant” refers to immigrants who are in the United States illegally.

The terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” are used interchangeably in this report.

“Foreign born” refers to persons born outside of the United States, Puerto Rico or other U.S. territories to parents neither of whom was a U.S. citizen. “Native born” refers to persons who are U.S. citizens at birth, including those born in the United States, Puerto Rico or other U.S. territories and those born abroad to parents at least one of whom was a U.S. citizen.

The children of immigrant parents are native-born and foreign-born children under age 18 who have at least one parent that was born in another country. The children of U.S.-born parents are native-born children under age 18 who have two U.S.-born parents.

  1. The “residual estimation methodology” is explained briefly in the Appendix and more fully in Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn (2011), “Unauthorized Immigrant Population: National and State Trends, 2010” at
  2. Of the 17.9-percentage-point difference between the number of parents with children in these two groups, 13.9 percentage points can be attributed to differences in age structure between populations. This figure is calculated by using a demographic technique called “age standardization.” See Das Gupta (1993).
  3. “Families” are defined as adults age 18 and older who live with their minor children (i.e., younger than 18) and unmarried, “dependent” children younger than 25.
  4. The Center’s analyses of CPS data indicate that approximately 98% of Hispanic immigrants who are neither citizens nor legal residents are unauthorized immigrants (Livingston, 2009).
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