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Debate Fact-Check: How Many Illegal Aliens Live in the United States?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Julio Cortez

In the final presidential debate, former Vice President Joe Biden promised that, if elected, he will create “a pathway to citizenship for over 11 million undocumented people.” While most of the pundits focused on how such a massive amnesty would impact America, there is also much disagreement surrounding the question of how many illegal aliens actually reside in the country. So where did Biden get his “11 million [illegal aliens]” figure? And is it accurate?

To answer those questions, we must first consider how experts calculate estimates for how many illegal aliens currently reside in the United States. The answer is, “it’s complicated.” Obviously, there is no running database of this cohort kept by the federal government, so the figures must be stitched together by sorting through other immigration-related data sources.

There are three primary steps to this process. The first is to determine how many foreign-born individuals currently live in the United States. Second, it must be determined what percentage of those foreign-born are lawfully present migrants. Finally, the total number of lawfully present individuals in the United States is subtracted from the total number of foreign-born residents (excluding citizens born abroad). The difference is assumed to be the base figure for an illegal alien population estimate. Most of the data needed to complete this process is available from an array of different federal government agencies, such as the Census Bureau or Department of Homeland Security.

But it doesn’t stop there, and this is where things get tricky. Every credible statistician acknowledges that many illegal aliens refuse to answer census-related surveys out of a desire to have no contact with the federal government. However, there is now significant disagreement as to how many avoid these surveys. In the past, during a now-lost time when both Republicans and Democrats agreed that illegal immigration was a significant issue, experts agreed that this undercount was probably between 25-35 percent. So, if a raw estimate was right around 10 million, the true population was probably somewhere between 12-14 million.

However, as the political climate surrounding illegal immigration became more polarized, many left-leaning organizations began reducing their assumptions of how many illegal aliens avoided participating in census surveys. Over time, many of these were reduced from as high as 35 percent down to as low as 5 percent today. The half-hearted defense offered for these changes is that these groups believe the ACS is becoming more accurate at incorporating illegal aliens into their annual surveys. However, there is no evidence to back up this claim.

This is where estimates from some organizations, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), depart from many of the more partisan left-wing outfits. FAIR continues to account for the well-established fact that many illegal aliens actively avoid partaking in federal census surveys. By accounting for this, FAIR estimated in 2019 that there were 14.3 million illegal aliens in the United States. That’s approximately 3 million more than the figure that Joe Biden continues to tout.

By contrast, the Pew Research Center (which continues to tweak their methodologies in a manner that yields lower results) believes there are only 10.5 million illegal aliens residing in the United States. That figure is at least 500,000 lower than what the Biden camp claims.

In fact, the only reputable organization that has an estimate which falls in the 11 million range is from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). However, in addition to employing some of the same statistically questionably tactics as Pew, their estimate is significantly outdated.

So, there is no contemporary data that supports Biden’s claim that there are only 11 million illegal aliens currently residing in the United States. In fact, in 2015, his own administration acknowledged that the real figure was at least 12 million. That figure is on par with FAIR’s estimates at that time, and considerably higher than those by MPI and Pew.

Creating an accurate estimate of the illegal alien population is important. For example, if the Biden administration intends to extend amnesty to all illegal aliens, the difference between 11 million and 14.3 million individuals would have a massive impact on future legal migration. Those who receive amnesty could then in turn sponsor the lawful migration of family members who still live abroad. According to the federal government, each immigrant to the United States, on average, sponsors three to four additional family members for green cards.

Americans deserve to know exactly how a candidate’s platform will impact their lives and the future of this country. And Joe Biden’s botched illegal alien population claims fails to do that.

Spencer Raley is the Director of Research for the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR)

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