(April 2005) The number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has increased 23 percent over the last four years to 10.3 million people, according to a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center. And more than one-half of the undocumented are from Mexico.

But although the report has inspired dramatic news headlines—such as “Undocumented Immigrant Population Surges”1, immigration analysts say that policymakers have neglected for decades the issues driving such immigration and the problems presented by such increased numbers. For instance, the recent North American summit on security and trade, held March 23 in Waco, Texas, failed to address immigration in a meaningful way.

At the summit, President George W. Bush even hinted that he could not engineer U.S. immigration reform. While Bush said he would continue to push for “reasonable, common-sense immigration policy,” he qualified that commitment by saying that “you don’t have my pledge that Congress will act, because I’m not a member of the legislative branch.”2

The Gridlock Over Immigration Policy

Figure 1
Composition of the Undocumented Population, by Country or Region of Birth


Source: Jeffrey S. Passel, “Estimates of the Size and Characteristics of the Undocumented Population” (Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center, March 2005).

Despite increased attention and funding to border security, as many as 800,000 people per year enter this country illegally under current U.S. immigration policy. The Pew report shows that 57 percent of these people are from Mexico, and a Migration Policy Institute analysis of census data shows that foreign-born residents from Mexico have a higher unemployment rate than do the overall foreign-born, the U.S.-born, and the total population (see Figure 1).

In January 2004, President Bush proposed a program that would give temporary legal status to migrants working for those U.S. employers who could demonstrate they had been unable to find citizens to fill the migrants’ jobs. But the proposal has not yet become a bill—and, as Bush’s own statement at the summit suggests, the Republican-controlled Congress is not likely to enact such legislation.

Many Republicans believe that the program would reward those who have violated the law as well as increase illegal immigration. Advocates of immigrant rights also object to the bill: They claim the program would fail to provide enough incentives to ensure participation, would tie workers to employers who might or might not treat them fairly, and would ignore the fact that migrants are not all young, single, male workers (see Figure 2).

An Effective Response Requires Knowing the Problem’s Size and Dimensions

Jeffrey Passel, senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center and the author of the report, sees the new numbers on undocumented immigrants as crucial to policymaking on the issue.

“It’s important that any policies be realistic in terms of the number of people involved,” says Passel. “Something that might work for 2 million immigrants might not be effective for 10 million because of the scope of implementation or the costs associated with enforcement, for example.”

Passel also points out that the report shows undocumented families contain a significant number of children, a fact he says tends to be overlooked in public debate. One in every six of all undocumented migrants is a child, and there are now approximately 3 million U.S.-born children in families headed by undocumented immigrants. Michael Fix, vice president and director of studies at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, says that these estimates “strongly reinforce that immigration policy reform should not just be designed to affect the labor, but should address family integration by extending legal status to children and aid to communities to offset new costs.”

Figure 2
Composition of the Undocumented Population by Age and Sex


Source: Jeffrey S. Passel, “Estimates of the Size and Characteristics of the Undocumented Population” (Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center, March 2005).

The Pew report also finds that immigrants both legal and undocumented are settling in states other than such traditional gateway states as California, New York, Texas, and Florida. Now other destinations, including Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee, are attracting immigrants in large numbers to work in construction, food-processing plants, and agriculture.

While the concentration of the undocumented in these locations and industries suggests that penalizing employers for hiring undocumented workers would be effective in limiting illegal immigration, the growth in the undocumented population suggests that workplace enforcement of current immigration laws is lax.

Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, is blunt about the enforcement issue. “We are making no effort at all at workplace enforcement,” says Camarota. He adds that enforcement has been complicated by growth in the number of falsified immigration documents, as enforcement officials must prove that the employer knowingly hired an undocumented worker.

Fix is also concerned that the new destination states for migrants have thin safety nets for these new residents. “They’re low-tax and low-benefit states,” he says. “They don’t have experience settling immigrants and don’t have the settlement infrastructure for receiving migrants.” Such infrastructure would include schools with teachers of English as a Second Language, accessible community services, and Hispanic representation on police forces.

Will Sheer Numbers Force New Policymaking?

Passel says that projections based on historical trends suggest that undocumented immigrants to the United States will continue to grow. He adds that he has been surprised by the lack of political response to the numbers. Camarota, however, sees the current stasis in U.S. immigration policy as a standoff not between political parties, but between politics and popular will.

“The elites in this country have enough power to ensure we don’t enforce the laws, but not enough power to pass an amnesty,” Camarota says. “Public opinion is strong enough to ensure we don’t pass an amnesty, but not strong enough to demand law enforcement. The result is stalemate.”

But Fix says he sees more legislative ferment on immigration reform than in the past—a ferment he attributes in part to the spread of undocumented migrants across the country. “This is slowly becoming a 50-state issue,” he says.

Allison Tarmann is the former editor of Population Today.



  1. Genaro C. Armas, “Undocumented Immigrant Population Surges,” Associated Press, March 21, 2005.
  2. White House Office of the Press Secretary, “President Meets with President Fox and Prime Minister Martin” (March 23, 2005), accessed online at www.whitehouse.gov, on April 7, 2005.

For More Information

Jeffrey S. Passel, “Estimates of the Size and Characteristics of the Undocumented Population” (Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center, March 2005), accessed online at www.pewhispanic.org/, on April 8, 2005.