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The numbers

Counting unauthorized immigrants a challenge

How many people live in the U.S. without authorization? Researchers can only estimate the size of this population, a complex process itself. Sometimes, a small change in the survey they use can lead to a big change in outcome. That’s why even the Department of Homeland Security may be off in its most recent estimate.

Surveys such as the census or the Current Population Survey don’t include questions about citizenship status. Researchers use intricate methods to assign citizenship status based on a number of criteria, then factor in low response rates among unauthorized immigrants.

“It’s a fairly complicated methodology,” said Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center.

As a result, numbers vary widely, ranging between 7 million in a 2000 estimate by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to as much as 20 million in a 2005 estimate by Bear Stearns. Bear Stearns analyists argued that the Census Bureau doesn’t fully account for the low response rates among immigrant populations, thus leading to a broad undercount.

The maps show some recent estimates (click on image to go to interactive map and see state numbers). Read on below to find out why even the Department of Homeland Security may be wrong in its latest estimate.

2000 - 2009 estimates combined

More recently, the Pew Hispanic Center has released a report in April 2009 which puts the number of unauthorized immigrants at 11.9 million. It allows for a statistical range between 11.4 and 12.4 million.

The Department for Homeland Security also produces estimates of the unauthorized population, most recently in January 2009. According to these statistics, the number of people living in the U.S. without authorization dropped from 11.6 million in 2008 to 10.8 million in 2009.

But the numbers didn’t fall because there actually are less unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., said Pew Hispanic Center’s Passel.

“I think their estimate is a bit low, but mainly because of the survey,” he said, explaining that the Current Population Survey that the estimate is based on was changed in 2009. “They lowered the ‘undocumented’ number by a couple hundred thousands over what it would’ve been with the old methodology.”

Passel expects that the 2010 census will bring new data to base estimates off. In the meantime, the interactive maps below show some of the estimates over time. While they are approximations, they give an indication of how many unauthorized immigrants live where in the U.S.

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