Study: Most unauthorized immigrants are long settled in U.S.

By Patrick Timmons
Study: Most unauthorized immigrants are long settled in U.S.
A new study indicates more than 60 percent of undocumented immigrants have been in the United States longer than 10 years. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

EL PASO, Texas, Nov. 20 (UPI) -- A new study provides a picture of the diverse, established lives of the 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. While many of these unauthorized immigrants live below the poverty line, sizable percentages are homeowners, speak English well, have a college degree and are parents to U.S. citizen children.

"The unauthorized population in the United States is a long-settled population," said Julia Gelatt, co-author of the study, Settling In, conducted by the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan immigration research center based in Washington, D.C.


"We are not talking about recent inflows, or people who just got here," she told UPI.

Her research found that 62 percent "were in the U.S. for at least 10 years or more and at least one in five had been here more than 20 years."

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The MPI study mines data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau and compares it to other data sets to establish sociodemographic profiles for 41 U.S. states and 135 counties with the largest unauthorized immigrant populations. Five American states are home to three of every five undocumented immigrants: California, Florida, New Jersey, New York and Texas. Los Angeles County has almost 10 percent of the nation's total, with California accounting for 27 percent of the nation's undocumented.


The MPI study contradicts out-of-date stereotypes of mostly Mexican men in southwestern states like Texas and California laboring in agriculture. Mexicans barely make up just over half of the U.S. population of unauthorized immigrants, and since Mexican migration dropped in the Great Recession to now historic lows, it has been replaced by immigration from the Golden Triangle countries of Central America: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. In Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, El Salvador is the most common country of origin of unauthorized immigrants.

"One of the surprising things is that even in so-called new destinations, like Georgia, Arkansas and North Carolina, sizable shares of unauthorized immigrants have been in the U.S. for at least 10 years," Gelatt said.

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"It's a different thing to enforce immigration laws against somebody who just entered the country than enforcing them against somebody who has deep roots in the country," Gelatt said, "It's a different process and will spur a very different reaction from immigrants themselves and their communities."

"Our approach to the border and border enforcement needs to be updated to reflect these new realities. There should be recognition of people's ties and that people are living in mixed-status families and immigration enforcement is affecting U.S. citizen children and the government should take steps to protect children in immigration enforcement," Gelatt told UPI.


U.S. citizen children living in mixed-status households

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According to MPI, 5.1 million children live in households with at least one undocumented parent. About 1 million of these children are unauthorized immigrants, but the vast majority, 80 percent, are U.S. citizen children living in a mixed-status household.

A mixed-status household describes a family in which one parent is unauthorized and the other is a legal permanent resident or U.S. citizen.

When immigration enforcement is applied to mixed status households, "removing the unauthorized parent means breaking up a family," said Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.

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"They don't live in undocumented town," Meade said. "They don't live in some isolatable community where you can have immigration enforcement that won't affect the rest of society. They are all mixed in with all the rest of us, including in their own households."

Children, the MPI researcher said, are affected by their parents' immigration status in a variety of ways.

"They are U.S. citizen children but they are really strongly affected by the fact that their parents lack full membership in the United States and have constrained work opportunities, and access to the safety net in times of need," Gelatt said.


The portrait provided by these statistics does not reveal the extent to which children of immigrants fear President Donald Trump's crackdown on immigration since he took office in January 2017.

"Children hear all of the news stories, or their parents talking, and can be very worried their parents will be arrested by immigration enforcement or being deported away from their children. Usually the father has been deported back to the home country and the family needs to adjust to life without their parent which can be very traumatic for children and have significant consequences for the family's economic security."

Poverty, employment and the American Dream

The federal poverty line, and whether or not household income is greater or less than the poverty rate, is a key way for labor economists to determine social mobility.

MPI data about unauthorized immigrant households living below or above the poverty line provides another startling portrait of unauthorized immigrants' success in the United States.

According to MPI, 28 percent of unauthorized immigrant households live below the federal poverty line. However, more than 40 percent of unauthorized immigrant households have an income that is twice the federal poverty threshold.

"If you put this data with the education and homeownership data it puts unauthorized immigrants at or ahead of the curve for native born to understand what happens over time if you start at the bottom," Meade said.


The MPI data give a powerful picture of social mobility.

"We know that most undocumented immigrants arrive in the United States at below the poverty line," Meade said, "but over time they are doing much better. The number of unauthorized immigrants who have made it out of the bottom of the economic tier is higher than the number who are stuck there. That's the American dream. These numbers suggest people are finding a way, and they are finding a way without much infrastructure of public support."

The employment rate for unauthorized immigrants over the age of 16 stands at 67 percent, whereas, for the native-born it is 58 percent. The unemployment rate for native born and unauthorized immigrants is the same, 5 percent, a feature of the booming U.S. economy, according to MPI.

Agricultural labor is no longer the most common form of employment for unauthorized immigrants. MPI data shows that the most common industries for unauthorized immigrants are hospitality, construction, manufacturing and administrative services, including waste management.

Home ownership

Home ownership is a hallmark of the American Dream and is embraced by unauthorized immigrants settled for decades in the United States.

Nationally, 34 percent of unauthorized immigrants own their own home, a figure that fluctuates from place to place depending on the local housing market. In Michigan, New Mexico, Kansas and Texas, 45 percent of unauthorized immigrants own their own homes while in Rhode Island, New York, and D.C., 25 percent of immigrants own their homes.


Nonetheless, unauthorized immigrants do not share a homeownership rate greater than most American households, native and none native alike. The U.S. Census Bureau calculates 64.4 percent of American households own their own homes.

Education and English-language acquisition

While 47 percent of immigrants over the age of 25 do not have a high school diploma, MPI's new data also reveal a surprising degree of educational attainment and English language acquisition.

Nationwide, 15 percent of unauthorized immigrants over 25 have a college degree. But in some places, like Washington, D.C., Michigan and Ohio, that number surges to 30 percent of unauthorized immigrants who hold a college degree.

Another key MPI finding is about immigrants who speak English. Exactly 56 percent of unauthorized immigrants speak English very well or well. And, while Spanish is the most prevalent first language with English second, unauthorized immigrants are diverse so that Tagalog, Korean and Pacific Islander languages also comprise a significant share.

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