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Illegal Residents Exceed Estimate

Experts Analyzing New Census Figures Say 6 Million May Instead Be 9 Million _____Special Report_____ By D'Vera Cohn Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, March 18, 2001; Page A01

The number of undocumented immigrants in the United States appears to be far higher than the 6 million the government has estimated, according to a growing number of federal officials and other experts.

The discrepancy has surfaced in recent weeks as the results of the 2000 Census have been released. And while researchers do not agree on how many undocumented immigrants live in this country, there is growing consensus that the number could be at least 50 percent higher than the official estimate. They say it could range from 9 million to 11 million or higher.

The presence of millions of people in this country previously unknown to the government has important policy implications, from border enforcement programs to visa regulations. It also could explain why unemployment rates and wage trends have seemed out of step with the tight labor market of recent years.

Officials and researchers point to the census as evidence in arguing that the 6 million figure is far too low. The Census Bureau had estimated -- based on birth, death and other records -- that its 2000 head count would find 275 million U.S. residents. The number that came in was much higher: 281.4 million. Then, a survey conducted after the census as a quality check arrived at an even higher number: 285 million.

The census also found 35.3 million Hispanics, a number much higher than the 32.5 million the government had estimated.

The most likely explanation for the gaps between those numbers is that the nation's foreign-born population is much larger than previously believed, according to Commerce Department and Census Bureau officials, as well as a number of outside researchers.

"Immigration -- unmeasured immigration -- is the thing we are looking at," said John F. Long, chief of the bureau's population division. "The biggest candidate is . . . undocumented" immigrants.

Officials hope to resolve the discrepancy by fall, because it is part of a larger decision on whether federal funds should be distributed based on the actual census head count or a figure adjusted to compensate for millions missed in the census.

The disparity in numbers has occupied government and academic researchers. Last week, Census Bureau officials delved into the topic at a meeting, and this week they plan to do the same with researchers specializing in immigration. They may even speed up their timetable for processing detailed census data on the nation's foreign-born population, which was not scheduled for release until next year.

In attempting to explain the discrepancy in population figures, Census Bureau officials went back to other surveys and concluded that a more plausible number for the undocumented population is about 9 million. Urban Institute researcher Jeffrey S. Passel, who looked at similar information, came up with the same figure.

A team of Northeastern University researchers, analyzing two sets of economic data, say there could be 11 million or more undocumented people in the United States. Lee Price, a top Commerce Department official who also studiedthe economic data, said the number may not be that high but could be millions above previous estimates.

"If there are that many people here, that changes the way we think about ourselves and what's happening," said Price, acting deputy undersecretary for economic affairs.

Price said that if the number of illegal immigrants is higher than previously thought, it could explain why unemployment fell more slowly in the 1990s than the growing number of jobs would indicate it should. It could also answer another question: Why didn't wages rise faster as unemployment fell?

However, not all experts agree that illegal immigration has been drastically undercounted. Robert Warren, of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, says the data he has seen, including unpublished figures, do not show a huge increase in the undocumented population.

"I just haven't seen anything to indicate that it would be above 7 million," said Warren, research coordinator for the INS's Office of Policy and Planning. "I don't think the answer is that millions of unauthorized immigrants have come here in the last few years."

Warren said all the theories need to be tested with information available only from the census itself. He believes the census was so much better than the 1990 tally that it counted people for the first time who have been here for years.

He said the gap could also be explained in part by the Census Bureau's failure to track a growing number of documented immigrants who are here for only a few years, such as students or temporary workers drawn by the hot economy. Census officials do not dispute that assertion but say it cannot explain the entire gap.

Traditionally, undocumented immigrants have been concentrated in low-skill jobs, from landscaping to meatpacking. According to previous estimates, most are Latino and about four in 10 live in California. But Price said the census discrepancy has led him to wonder whether undocumented workers are coming from a different mix of countries than previously thought.

Researchers have examined two sets of data to back up their conclusions that the immigrant population -- especially illegal immigrants -- has been underestimated.

Passel and Census Bureau researchers took a close look at the Current Population Survey, a monthly household survey by the bureau. About the time the census was being taken -- amid a giant publicity campaign urging fearful immigrants to be counted -- the survey's numbers for the foreign-born population suddenly rose.

And it was not only new arrivals. Passel said the survey recorded an increase in the number of illegal immigrants who said they came to the United States in 1994 and 1995, presumably people who had never responded before.

"My hypothesis was the publicity surrounding the 2000 Census got these people to start appearing in the survey -- that and the fact that they had been better established" and felt safer, Passel said.

The Northeastern University team and Price, the Commerce undersecretary, also concluded that the undocumented population had been underestimated but did so by studying economic data. They started with a puzzle: The number of jobs people reported in a census survey has long been lower than the number of jobs reported by employers to another government agency for tax purposes. In the 1990s, the gap was 4 million.

The economists tend to believe the employers, who must pay tax on the jobs they report. So they believe much of the difference between the two job totals could be explained by undocumented immigrants, whose numbers would throw off the census survey.

The Spanish Catholic Center in Mount Pleasant got a vivid reminder of how many undocumented immigrants there might be in this area when the federal government allowed Salvadorans to apply for temporary protective status March 2, after the earthquake in their country.

"We have been inundated with people coming and standing in line in front of our center from 3 or 4 a.m.," said Carmen Dominguez, the center's interim associate director.

"The crowds were so great," she said, "that the center now makes appointments in advance."

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.

-- Martin Thompson (, March 17, 2001


"Illegal immigrants exceed estimates"

Whose estimates? The estimates are a result of politics. The Democrats want as many poor illegal aliens as possible because they could end up being a possible vote in the future.

Here in Mesa (Phoenix), AZ I FEEL LIKE I'M A FOREIGNER when I go to the grocery store. I think my estimate would be more in line because its not politicized.

It will end up being one of the most colossal blunders imaginable. If our economy tanks, we'll never be able to get rid of the illegal immigrants because the courts have decreed it would be discrimination to touch an illegal immigrant UNLESS they committed a crime (other than being here legally). So the United States will have to care for millions and millions of illegal aliens when so many natural born citizens will be out of jobs. Sounds fair to me!

For all those smart ass liberals who keep singing the refrain, "well our ancestors were immigrants, AND everyone should be entitled to the American dream", lets see if you can keep your tune while your unemployed and in the process of foreclosure or eviction.

-- Guy Daley (, March 18, 2001.

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