Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Population Decline of Unauthorized Immigrants Stalls, May Have Reversed

2. Number and Trend

Estimates of the U.S. Unauthorized Immigrant Population, 1990-2012

The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. climbed steadily from 1990 to 2007, when it peaked at 12.2 million people.2 The trend of annual increases averaging more than 500,000 per year then changed abruptly as the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. fell in 2008 and 2009, reversing a pattern of gains that had prevailed for decades. There was no statistically significant annual change in 2010, 2011 or 2012, indicating that the decline has leveled off.

In 2012, the population of 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants was half a million people smaller than it had been in 2007, when the Great Recession began. (The recession officially ended in June 2009.)

Although it appears that the unauthorized immigrant total has begun to grow again, the data are insufficient to say so definitively. The difference in the size of the unauthorized population from 2010 (11.4 million) to 2012 (11.7 million), or from 2011 (11.5 million) to 2012 is not statistically significant.

As explained above, the estimates are not exact because they are derived from Census Bureau sample surveys, rather than complete counts. Each annual estimate actually is the middle point of a range of possible values. One approximate indicator is that if the annual ranges overlap—as they do for 2010 and 2012, and for 2011 and 2012—apparent differences may not be real. (See Methodology for more detail.)

Despite recent declines, the unauthorized immigrant population in 2012 was about three times what it had been in 1990, when an estimated 3.5 million foreign born residents lived in the U.S. without legal authorization. By 1995, that number grew to 5.7 million. By 2005, the 1995 total had nearly doubled, to 11.1 million.

Estimates of the U.S. Immigrant Population, Selected Years

The legal immigrant population has continued to increase in recent years, so the decline in the unauthorized population means that unauthorized immigrants are a somewhat smaller share of the foreign-born population of 41.7 million in 2012 (28%) than in 2007 (30%). However, unauthorized immigrants still represented a much higher share of all immigrants in 2012 than in 1995 (21%).

In addition to 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants, the U.S. foreign-born population included 28.3 million legal permanent immigrants in 2012, an increase from 26.9 million in 2007. This growth was consistent with patterns over the past decade. The total also included 1.7 million legal temporary migrants, compared with an estimated 1.5 million in 2007.

  1. Pew Research Center estimates include annual change from 1995 to 2011. Warren and Warren (2013) includes annual changes from 1990 to 1995.
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