Undocumented migrants are persons who have entered the United States without authorization, namely, a visa, or without presenting themselves for inspection by a federal agent at a port or place of entry. The term ‘‘undocumented migrants’’ also includes persons who entered the United States with a nonimmigrant visa, a visa that allows a noncitizen to visit, study, or work in the United States for a temporary period of time, but who stayed beyond the time authorized by the visa. Undocumented migrants are sometimes referred to as unauthorized migrants or illegal immigrants.
It is difficult to determine exactly how many unauthorized migrants currently live in the United States. Unauthorized migrants face detention, removal, or federal prosecution as a result of their status; thus, it is almost impossible to accurately count the population. Federal estimates based on the 2000 census placed the figure at 7 million with an estimated annual growth of approximately 350,000 per year. Other estimates report the unauthorized population to range from 9 million to 11 million. The total United States population is approximately 281 million; thus, the unauthorized population is a small percentage of the total population of the United States—approximately 2.5 percent using the federal government figures.
The undocumented population tends to be employed in the agricultural, manufacturing, hospitality, and construction industries. Employment and the search for higher wages continue to be the strongest reasons for undocumented migrants to enter the United States, although U.S. employers face stiff federal civil and criminal penalties if they employ undocumented workers.
Undocumented migrants also enter the United States to flee economic, political, or natural disasters. Some of these persons may eventually qualify for permanent residency as asylum-refugees-and-the-convention-against-torture.html">refugees. Some of them may be granted temporary protected status until the emergency that caused them to leave their country of origin is remedied or resolved. Undocumented migrants also enter the United States to be close to relatives who are U.S. citizens or permanent resident aliens.
The United States currently limits authorized immigration to approximately 675,000 visas annually. These visas are awarded primarily on the basis of a close family relationship (approximately 480,000) or on the basis of an employment relationship (140,000). American immigration statutes grant U.S. citizens the benefit of an immigrant visa to their spouse, minor, unmarried and married children, and to the citizen’s parents and siblings if the citizen is older than twentyone. Permanent resident aliens are allowed the benefit of an immigrant visa for their spouse and minor or unmarried children. Family-based visas are subject to a per country cap as well. Because the number of eligible family beneficiaries is greater in some countries than the number of visas available each year, substantial backlogs build up in the various categories. In some cases, family beneficiaries may have to wait more than ten, sometimes even fifteen, years for their visa. Some of these persons in line for an immigrant visa may risk unauthorized status to be close to their family, while they wait for their visa number to come up. These undocumented migrants may be entitled to adjust their status to that of a permanent resident alien eventually.
Approximately 69 percent of unauthorized migrants come from Mexico. Most of the leading source countries for unauthorized migration to the United States are in Central or South America, with the exception of China. Significant numbers of unauthorized migrants reside in California, Texas, Illinois, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina.
American society has at times tolerated the presence of undocumented migrants. Increasingly, toward the latter half of the twentieth century amidst concern that the undocumented population was growing too quickly and taking away too many jobs from American workers, Congress enacted legislation to deter undocumented migration. Legislation enacted in 1986 dealt with undocumented migration in a variety of ways, including enhancing criminal sanctions, strengthening border controls, criminalizing the employment of undocumented workers and marriage fraud, and an amnesty program for undocumented workers to become permanent residents if they met certain criteria. Amnesty programs have been favored in the past as a way to deal with undocumented persons who have resided and worked in the United States for a long period of time and who have established relationships with American citizens and American communities.
In the 1990s, however, with the increase in terrorist incidents targeting the United States both abroad and at home, the perception that undocumented migration posed a serious threat to national security led Congress to enact even more restrictive measures aimed at deterring undocumented migration. Increasingly, these measures made it easier to remove undocumented migrants and to curtail statutory benefits and protections. Some of these measures, like indefinite detention, curtailing of habeas corpus, and curtailing of judicial review of immigration administration decisions, also threatened to strip constitutional protections of undocumented migrants.
There is lively debate among economic and migration experts about the costs and benefits of undocumented migration, with some experts concluding that the costs of undocumented migration are too great to tolerate it, and others concluding that the benefits to the economy and the country as a whole far outweigh the costs. Undocumented migration is a global phenomenon, felt not just by the United States but also by most major Western countries. The attention paid to this controversial subject by Congress and the president is likely to increase in the years to come.
ISABEL M. MEDINA
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited