National Data | Bush Amnesty May Be Much Bigger Than Advertised
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President Bush has returned to his illegal alien amnesty proposal—again. But how many illegals are we talking about?

The 2000 Census said 8.7 million. The Pew Hispanic Center, analyzing data from the Census Bureau's March 2004 population survey, bumped the total up to 10.3 million, adding that it was increasing by about 485,000 persons each year. Homeland Security has put the figure as high as 12 million. [Ridge rapped for immigration views, By Jerry Seper, Washington Times, December 11, 2003.]

Fact#1: No one knows how many illegal aliens are living in the U.S.

Fact #2: Anecdotal evidence suggests the official estimates are way too low

Illegal aliens are (surprise! surprise!) loath to fill out the questionnaires on which the Census Bureau bases its population figures. For Census and groups that use its figures, such as the cottage industry of illegal alien estimators at work inside the Beltway, undercounts are inevitable. Which is why the Census Bureau estimate has been repeatedly revised upward.

Measuring the size of the illegal alien population is more art than science, given the flaws in the official statistics. But compelling anecdotal evidence suggests the illegal alien population is far higher than most think. For example:

  • Remittances to Mexico doubled between 2000 and 2003, yet the official tally of immigrants from Central America (including Mexico) grew 26 percent and their real wages were falling.


  • Housing permits in gateway cities are rising far faster than the population; in northern New Jersey, for example, cities with a combined 5.6 percent population growth, report a 6-fold rise in permits.




  • Payroll versus Household job growth: Household employment surveys show far more robust job growth than the official job statistics, which are based on a survey of employers. Hispanics dominate job growth in the household survey. We make this point in our monthly analysis of employment trends.

Another approach ignores Census data completely, focusing instead on the movement of illegals in and out of the country. This methodology builds on several pieces of information and assumptions:


  • Apprehension rate—for every illegal caught crossing the border an estimated 3 to 6 escape detection


  • Repeat offenders—many illegals who are caught and returned home try to re-enter and are caught again. They must be deducted to avoid double-counts.


  • Short-term stays and legalizations—165,000 illegals a year return home voluntarily after residing here for at least a year; the same number get some sort of legal status, about 50,000 are deported, and 25,000 die. They also must be deducted in estimating the annual net increase in illegal aliens.

Researcher Fred Elbel has connected all of the links in this chain. Using conservative assumptions at each juncture—i.e., one in four illegals apprehended, one-third of the others returning home or becoming legalized—Elbel concludes that the illegal alien population is increasing by an average of at least 2.2 million persons annually.

Let's err on the side of caution, and cut this figure in half—to 1.1 million. At that rate about 21 million illegals would have been added since the 1986 amnesty made everyone legal. This happens to be about what D.A. King estimated with a back-of-the envelope calculation last summer.

With the Bush Amnesty, America is being asked to buy a pig in a poke—and it's a bigger pig than Washington is letting on.

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.

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