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Breaking Down The Nearly 11 Million Unauthorized Immigrants In The U.S.


Experts believe that 11 million people are in the U.S. without legal status, and we're going to take a closer look now at who those people are with NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Hi, Hansi.


SHAPIRO: So where does that estimate come from? Eleven million unauthorized immigrants - where does that number come from?

WANG: Well, demographers come up with this number by - basically, they take census numbers looking at exactly how many people in the U.S. were born outside the U.S., and they subtract from that number people who have green cards, people who are U.S. citizens, and so that's the basic math that we're left with - about 11 million.

And, you know, one thing to do is also to retrace historically, how do we get to 11 million? If you start in 1986, that - the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. was around 3 million. This is a time when President Ronald Reagan has signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act that made crossing the U.S.-Mexico border a lot harder because there was more enforcement. But still, the numbers continued to grow, and by the mid-1990s, it hit around 5 million. And it peaked at 12 million by 2006, 2007 and finally leveled off around to 11 million. That was because of the 2008 recession.

And I talked to one demographer at Penn State University. Her name is Jennifer Van Hook. And she said 2008 was a big turning point. But still, you know, right now more than half of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. are from Mexico. But Van Hook told me that many Mexican immigrants are actually going back to Mexico. Here's what she said.

JENNIFER VAN HOOK: We continue to see about 11 million undocumented immigrants, but the numbers from Mexico have gone down while numbers from some other places have increased slightly. And many of these people don't come by crossing the border. They come because they have visas that then they overstay.

SHAPIRO: Hansi, these people who overstay their visas, what countries do they primarily come from?

WANG: We're seeing growing numbers coming from Central America, including unaccompanied minors. They're also coming from Asia, sub-Saharan Africa. You know, one interesting thing is in the last fiscal year, 2015, the country with the most visa overstays was Canada.

SHAPIRO: As you dig deeper into these numbers, what about deportations? How many are removed from the country year by year?

WANG: Well, under George W. Bush, just over 2 million people were deported. Under Obama, more than two and a half million were deported, and that's more than any other president before. And despite these deportation numbers, demographers have told me that, you know, to really understand this population, you also have to take a look at fertility rates of countries where people are coming from and also economic factors here in the U.S. and abroad.

You know, there's been a steady rise of unauthorized immigrants since the mid-1990s and that only stopped because of the 2008 recession. And we're at a point now where about two-thirds of adults here in the U.S. without legal status - they've been in the U.S. for at least a decade.

SHAPIRO: Just to put a face on some of these figures, I know you've been talking with some people who are here without documentation. What are you hearing from them?

WANG: Well, I talked to one immigrant. Her name is Sara. We're not using her last name because she fears deportation for her parents. Sara is 26, from Chicago. She works in the financial industry. Her parents were born in South Korea. She and her siblings were born in South America, and they all overstayed their tourist visas when Sara was 10 years old. And she and her siblings are now protected from deportation because of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. But I also asked Sara, you know, what would it mean if her parents were deported, and here's what she said.

SARA: Would be completely devastating primarily for the reason that they're currently working very hard so that they can finance one of my sibling's college education. And I guess, for me, it's let a lot of questions come back to me and this really desperate immediate need for answers. You know, who am I? What am I doing here? Where do I belong?

WANG: You can hear the sense of panic in her voice, and Sara is getting support now from the advocacy group NAKASEC. But she's telling me she's trying to avoid the news right now just to get through the day.

And, you know, one thing to keep in mind is that even though there were a record number of deportations under Obama, the categories under Trump have now been - significantly increased those who are affected, possibly, who could be at risk of deportation. And so there's a lot of fear right now in immigrant communities.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang, thanks.

WANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.