Pew Hispanic Center Offers Fuller Portrait of Unauthorized Migrants

Pew Hispanic Center Offers Fuller Portrait of Unauthorized Migrants

Contrary to the stereotype of undocumented migrants as single males with very little education who perform manual labor in agriculture or construction, a new Pew Hispanic Center report shows that most of the unauthorized population lives in families, a quarter has at least some college education and that illegal workers can be found in many sectors of the U.S. economy.

Building on previous work that estimated the size and geographic dispersal of the undocumented population, the new report offers a portrait of that population in unprecedented detail by examining family composition, educational attainment, income and employment.

"Unauthorized Migrants: Numbers and Characteristics" was prepared by Jeffrey S. Passel, a veteran demographer and senior research associate at the Center, using a well-established methodology to analyze data from the March 2004 Current Population Survey, which was conducted by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The report estimates the number of persons living in families in which the head of the household or the spouse is an unauthorized migrant--13.9 million as of March 2004, including 4.7 million children. Of those individuals, some 3.2 million are US citizens by birth but are living in "mixed status" families in which some members are unauthorized, usually a parent, while others, usually children, are Americans by birthright.

"The large number of US citizen children born to parents with no legal status highlights one of the thorniest dilemmas in developing policies to deal with the unauthorized population," said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research center based in Washington, D.C.

The report also offers extensive data on the employment of unauthorized migrants, mapping their presence in many sectors of the US labor force. The report finds that at least 6.3 million unauthorized workers were employed as of March 2004, comprising 4.3 percent of the civilian labor force. Since 1986 it has been illegal for employers to hire workers lacking proof of proper immigration status.

While 3 percent of unauthorized workers are employed in agriculture, 33 percent have jobs in service industries and substantial shares can be found in construction and extractive occupations (16%) and in production, installation and repair (17%).

Overall, unauthorized migrants are less educated than other sectors of the population with 49 percent having not completed high school, compared with 9 percent of the native-born and 25 percent of legal immigrants. Nonetheless, a quarter of the unauthorized have at least some college education and another quarter have finished high school.

"Not all of the unauthorized population fits the stereotype of a poorly educated manual laborer," Passel said.

The new report was developed as a briefing paper for the Independent Task Force on Immigration and America's Future, co-chaired by former Senator Spencer Abraham (R-MI) and former Congressman Lee Hamilton (D-IN). The bipartisan task force has been convened by the Migration Policy Institute in partnership with the Manhattan Institute and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The report on the unauthorized population was presented to the task force by the Pew Hispanic Center to provide a factual basis for its discussions; the Pew Hispanic Center, which does not engage in issue advocacy, is not participating in the task force's deliberations or its policy recommendations.

The report builds on a previous report by Passel released in March that estimated the unauthorized population at 10.3 million as of March 2004 and examined its dispersal to a variety of new destinations. Given recent growth rates the number of unauthorized migrants now approaches 11 million. The first section of the new report reviews those estimates, and the report then goes on to present additional material that examines the current characteristics of the undocumented population for the first time.

Some of the report's major findings include:

  • Since the mid-1990s the number of unauthorized migrants arriving in the United States has exceeded the number of new legal immigrants. In recent years some 700,000 unauthorized migrants have arrived annually, compared with about 610,000 legal immigrants.  
  • The education level of unauthorized migrants arriving in recent years is higher than the levels of those who have been in the country for a decade or more. The share who lack a high school degree is lower among those who have been in the United States for 10 years or less than among those of longer tenure (45% vs. 56%) and the share with some college education is higher (19% vs. 10%).  
  • Labor force participation rates are higher among male unauthorized migrants (92%) than in other sectors of the population (e.g. 83% of the native-born). In contrast female unauthorized migrants are less likely to work, with a labor force participation rate of 56% compared with 73% of the native-born.  
  • Unauthorized workers make up a large share of the workforce in a number of occupations that require neither government licensing nor education credentials. For example, about a quarter of all drywall and ceiling tile installers in the United States are unauthorized migrants, as are about a quarter of all meat and poultry workers and a quarter of all dishwashers.  
  • Incomes for unauthorized migrants are low compared to legal immigrants and the native-born, but they increase somewhat the longer an individual is in the country. The average family income in 2003 for unauthorized migrants in the country for less than ten years was $25,700, while those who had been in the country for a decade or more earned $29,900. In contrast, average family incomes were considerably higher for both legal immigrants ($47,800) and the native-born ($47,700).

The Pew Hispanic Center is a nonpartisan research organization supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Its mission is to improve understanding of the U.S. Hispanic population and to chronicle Latinos' growing impact on the entire nation. The Center does not advocate for or take positions on policy issues. It is a project of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan "fact tank" in Washington, DC that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.