New Report Adds Dimensions To 'Undocumented Immigrant'

Undocumented immigrants are more likely than U.S.-born residents of legal immigrants to live in a household with a spouse or children, according a new study released by the Pew Hispanic Center. For more about the face of America's undocumented population, host Michel Martin talks with Jeffrey Passel, one of the authors of the study.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we turn to another study that challenges conventional wisdom. The Pew Hispanic Center released a report yesterday that adds dimension to the term undocumented immigrant.

A portrait of unauthorized immigrants in the United States is a comprehensive look at where undocumented immigrants come from and how they are living in the U.S. And the study shows that contrary to the image many people may have in their minds of single men crossing borders alone, working on the margins of society, almost half of undocumented immigrants are couples with young children, and a large number are so-called mixed-status families.

Joining us to talk more about this is Jeffrey Passel. He's a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center and one of the authors of the report. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. JEFFREY PASSEL (Senior Demographer, Pew Hispanic Center): I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: I think the major revelation of the study to me is just how many undocumented or illegal migrants have families. Almost half of the illegal migrant households are couples with children. That's actually higher, even, than the percentage for legal immigrants. Why is that?

Mr. PASSEL: It has a lot to do with the demographic structure of this population. It's basically young, working families. A very high percentage of the undocumented immigrants are young working age, between about 18 and 40. There's almost no senior citizens in this group, and so they don't form the kind of small, single-person households that we find in the native population or in the legal-immigrant population. And because they're young, they have kids.

MARTIN: I think a lot of people would be interested to know how the Pew Hispanic Center went about collecting this data. I think the working assumption would be that this is a group of people who are not particularly eager to give personal information to people.

Mr. PASSEL: This is largely from official government surveys, and it turns out that most of these people are perfectly happy to participate in the surveys. The surveys don't ask them whether they're legally in the country but only where they're born.

MARTIN: And where are they from?

Mr. PASSEL: Mostly Mexico. About 60 percent are from Mexico, and no other country is even close to that. After that, the biggest country is about five percent of the total.

MARTIN: Which is what?

Mr. PASSEL: In most years, it turns out to be El Salvador, but it varies a little bit, depending on which year. Central America and the rest of Latin America together supply about another 20 percent or so. So 80 percent are from Latin America.

MARTIN: One of the most striking findings of the report is that most of the children in households headed by illegal immigrants are themselves American citizens. The children are citizens. How does that complicate our discussions around this issue?

Mr. PASSEL: Well, I think this is one of the least well understood aspects of this whole situation. Our policies mainly try to deal with people based on their own status, and so put people into little boxes of citizen, legal immigrant, undocumented immigrant - but the families don't work that way.

Some undocumented immigrants, we don't know how many, may be married to people who are here illegally, but the big phenomenon that happens is that because these are families after they get here, the undocumented immigrants have kids, and those kids are U.S. citizens.

So something like a third of the undocumented population is related to a U.S. citizen.

MARTIN: One of the other findings that interested me is that undocumented or unauthorized immigrants, as they're described in the report, are moving out of the traditional gateway communities. That's reflected in school enrollments, among other things, that children of illegal immigrants are one in 15 students nationally but more than one in 10 in five states and that a lot of the places that folks are moving are places that we don't think of as places of destinations for unauthorized immigrants.

Mr. PASSEL: This is a phenomenon that started about 15 years ago. If you go back to 1990, California had 40 percent of the undocumented immigrants, and if you throw in the other five traditional states of Texas, New York, Florida, New Jersey and Illinois, 80 percent were in those six states.

California shared - the number there has more than doubled since 1990, but the share has dropped from 40 percent to 20 percent, and they've been going to other states in the West, like Arizona, Nevada, Washington. But once the undocumented immigrants had moved from California to someplace else, word went back to their homes, and that's where the new undocumented immigrants went. In some cases, these are places that had never seen an immigrant prior to 1980, essentially.

MARTIN: It shows how it's become a national conversation. It's no longer limited to certain sort of traditional kind of border states. But the other interesting thing, and we only have a couple of minutes left, is that the undocumented population rose steadily for some time and then leveled off in 2006. Why do we think that is?

Mr. PASSEL: There's two big factors at work, and we can't sort them out completely. One is the economy. These are people coming to work. The recession that started a while back hit some of the sectors where undocumented immigrants were working, particularly housing construction. And if there are not jobs for these people, they basically don't come. There's nothing else for them to do except work.

My own sense, from our analysis of the historical data, is that the flows of immigrants respond very directly to the employment situation in the country.

MARTIN: And finally, and it's probably a related point, another key finding is that children of illegal immigrants are twice as likely to be poor as the children of legal immigrants or of native-born Americans - less likely to have health insurance and so forth. Is that surprising, or is that just a logical consequence of the economic circumstances that people find themselves in?

Mr. PASSEL: Overall, this is a population with very low levels of education. Almost half of the undocumented immigrants haven't graduated from high school, so the jobs they're doing are low-paying, low-skilled jobs, for the most part.

The household incomes of undocumented immigrants are more than a quarter lower than the average in the overall population. The lack of health insurance is driven a lot by the kinds of jobs they have. They're working in jobs that often don't offer health insurance, and if they do, sometimes the immigrants can't afford them.

So about a third of the children of undocumented immigrants are in poverty, which is about twice what it is for the rest of the population.

MARTIN: Jeffrey Passel is a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center. He co-authored the report, "A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States." He joined us in our Washington, D.C., studios. If you want to see the report for yourself, we'll have a link on our Web site. Jeffrey, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. PASSEL: I'm glad to do it.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, a new museum celebrating African-American history and culture is coming to the National Mall in Washington. Its architect wants its mission to be reflected in the building itself.

Mr. PHILLIP FREELON (President, Freelon Group): We think it's important to express both the gravity and struggle of the African-American experience, but also the joy and vibrancy.

MARTIN: We talk to the leader of the winning design team for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.