Undocumented immigrants

Informed estimates show that there are 10 to 11 million undocumented Americans living in the USA. Most of them work and pay taxes, but they are not entitled to benefits.

Photo: iStock/vichinterlang

Here are some facts from Pew Research about undocumented immigrants:

  • Most (about 66%) have been in the United States for more than 10 years. Only 20% had been living in the United States for 5 years or less in 2017 (children are not included in these numbers).
  • More than 1.5 million are temporarily protected by DACA, TPS, or DED.
  • Fewer than half are from Mexico, but there are more Mexican undocumented Americans than any other nationality.
  • More than half live in California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York or Texas.
  • Most are undocumented because they have overstayed their visas, not because they have entered illegally.

Although exact figures are not available, estimates agree that, overall, there are fewer unauthorized immigrants than there were ten years ago.

Chart showing numbers of undocumented immigrants arriving in the USA.
This chart based on US Census/Pew Research Center data shows that the number of unauthorized immigrants in the USA has declined in recent years after a peak in 2007–8.

Work and taxes

Like other immigrants, undocumented Americans make significant contributions to the US economy. Some industries depend on them.

Most undocumented immigrants (an estimated 7–8 million) work. And although undocumented immigrants pay federal and sales taxes, they are not eligible for the federal benefits those taxes fund. Undocumented children are entitled to education in public schools, however.

Crime among undocumented immigrants

There is no evidence to support the claim that immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, commit more crimes than other Americans. In fact, statistics show that immigration is linked to lower crime rates. It seems that the often-mentioned criminals are in fact people who commit immigration-related offenses in an attempt to claim asylum.

Prosecutions and deportation

The rate of prosecution for entry-related offenses rose sharply in 2018 and 2019. Illegal entry as a first offense is a misdemeanor. Re-entry is a felony. In 2019, prosecutions for first offenses reached 80,886. This is one of the reasons for so many recent child-parent separations: children were taken from their parents on arrest, and then parents were deported.

The Department of Homeland Security says that in theory people can still pursue asylum when are convicted of immigration offenses. But many are pressured to sign plea agreements that cause them to be deported or waive their rights to asylum.