Study Challenges Notions of Illegal Immigration

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More than 10 million illegal immigrants now live in the United States, according to a new report. Most are from Mexico; many live in families of mixed status. The Pew Hispanic Center report details where and how undocumented immigrants live and work.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR West and Slate magazine online, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, the King of Pop and his king-sized debts, Michael Jackson's life after the trial.

First, the lead. There's a new report today on unauthorized migrants in the United States. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates almost 14 million people live in families headed by an unauthorized immigrant. This new report offers a detailed portrait of the population. Jeff Passel studies demography for the Pew Hispanic Center. He wrote the report.

Jeff, welcome to DAY TO DAY, and give us a sense of scale in these numbers. How big is the population of undocumented aliens and how has it grown?

Mr. JEFF PASSEL (Pew Hispanic Center): Our estimate is 10.3 million as of March of a year ago. So today it's probably close to 11 million. The numbers have been growing quite rapidly, adding a total of about half a million per year for a decade or more. So the numbers--and the numbers have continued to grow even in the face of the post-2000 recession.

CHADWICK: One interesting fact here: They're growing all over the country, not just in California and the border states.

Mr. PASSEL: Our data suggests that the numbers have increased by a factor of 10 outside of the more traditional settlement areas of California, Texas and New York. And some of the fastest-growing places include Arizona and then places that some people might not expect, like North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, states in the Midwest, states in the Southeast.

CHADWICK: Who are these people and where are they coming from?

Mr. PASSEL: Well, by far the largest number come from Mexico. Mexico alone accounts for almost six million, or just under 60 percent of the total. Other parts of Latin America are the second largest source, another 20 percent to 25 percent from there. They tend to be young. There's very few past about age 45. There are more men than women but there are a lot of women. It's also--they are in families, so there are a significant number of children even now.

CHADWICK: You write about the kinds of jobs that people take from this community. Not so many agricultural workers as I would have expected. Many, many people working in the service sector, many people working in extractive industries, in construction, that sort of thing.

Mr. PASSEL: Yes. A very large share of people who work in agriculture are unauthorized migrants. It's just that not a lot of people work in agriculture in this country. And a lot of them are working in a range of occupations, as long as they're not required to get government licenses or government certification. Our data suggests that 20 to 25 percent of people working in construction occupations like drywall installation or in meat and poultry plants are unauthorized workers.

CHADWICK: You note that this paper of yours is prepared for this task force on immigration and America's future. This was co-chaired by former Senator Spencer Abraham of Michigan and former Congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana. What are they going to do with this?

Mr. PASSEL: My understanding is that they are looking at immigration reform very broadly, but specifically ways to deal with the unauthorized migrants who are here and ways to streamline our immigration system in the future.

CHADWICK: Here's a factoid you report that I think is absolutely fascinating. Of the entire Mexican population in Mexico and in this country, one in 11 Mexicans now lives in the US.

Mr. PASSEL: That's right. It's a very high fraction of people outside the country; between 10 and 11 million Mexicans living in the US. What a lot of people don't realize is that this is actually a relatively recent phenomenon, that the very large and rapid movement of Mexicans to the US has mostly occurred since the late 1970s. But both US experts in this area and the Mexican demographers who looked at this expect continued migration from Mexico to the US into the future.

CHADWICK: Jeff Passel studies demography for the Pew Hispanic Center. His report, Unauthorized Migrants: Numbers and Characteristics, is released by the center today.

Jeff, thanks for being with us on DAY TO DAY.

Mr. PASSEL: You're very welcome. It's my pleasure.

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