Undocumented Immigrant Population Grows at Unprecedented Levels

Undocumented Immigrant Population Grows at Unprecedented Levels
Maria Perez in a crew of indigenous Oaxacan farm workers pick strawberries

(Editor’s note: Reprinted with permission from Ethnic Media Services.)

A record number of undocumented immigrants made the United States their home in the years 2019–2021, noted the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) in a report released Sept. 13.

Approximately 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants lived in the United States in 2021, up from 11.0 million in 2019, representing the largest jump in undocumented migration since 2015, according to MPI.

Even amid the Trump administration’s implementation of Title 42 and the Covid-19 pandemic when borders were completely shut down, a steady stream of migrants entered the country by land or by air. The data do not include 2022 or 2023, when nightly news was rife with images of people attempting to cross the border.

Arrivals at the border now represent a growing mix of nationalities from the Americas and, increasingly, from beyond the Southern Hemisphere. Growing numbers of migrants from faraway countries such as Russia, Turkey, Cameroon and India are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Asylum Seekers

“The easing of pandemic-era travel restrictions, increasing displacement due to global conflict and climate events, and shifts in regional migration have led to increased migration in the Americas and worldwide,” noted MPI, adding that an ever-growing number of border arrivals are asylum seekers.

The increase in unauthorized immigrants from 2019 to 2021 was largely driven by migration from Central America and Venezuela, in particular. Undocumented immigration from Mexico has been on the decline for the past decade. In a previous report, which looked at 2015–2019 data from the American Community Survey, an estimated 5.3 million undocumented Mexicans resided in the United States. In 2021, that number dropped to 5.2 million.

Voluntary Departure

Ariel Ruiz Soto, one of the authors of the MPI report, told Ethnic Media Services that the study looked at both arrivals and permanent departures from the United States. In the past few years, larger numbers of undocumented Mexicans—many who have lived in the United States for a decade or longer—have voluntarily returned to their home country, either to retire there or to follow a family member who has been deported.

The 20082009 recession abruptly reduced job opportunities in the United States, and many immigrants moved back to Mexico, noted the report. In addition, job opportunities started to increase as the Mexican economy recovered from the financial crises of the 1980s and 1990s.

Many take their U.S.-born children with them. “If a child is under the age of 10, their parents are more likely to take them with them as they return to Mexico,” said Soto. He noted that children older than 10 are likely to remain in the United States with extended family members.

Venezuela and Colombia

Soto predicted that arrivals and departures of undocumented people from Mexico would remain relatively stable over the next few years, with no net increase in arrivals. He noted there was also a dramatic increase in the number of applications for H2-A visas, which allow agricultural workers to work in the United States for 10 months or less. “People are increasingly seeking legal ways to migrate,” he said.

People originally from Mexico make up 46% of the undocumented population, a dramatic drop from 63% in 2007. People from Guatemala and El Salvador each represent 7% of the undocumented population. Hondurans and Indians make up 5% and 4% of the undocumented population, respectively, whereas Filipinos represent 3%.

Venezuelans currently represent 2% of the undocumented population, but Soto said he expects to see large increases in arrivals from Venezuela and Colombia.

MPI data estimates of the unauthorized population include people who hold some sort of twilight status such as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which grant the right to work in the United States and protection from deportation but do not offer permanent legal status. MPI estimates also include people in the process of applying for asylum, and represents an increasing number of Europeans and others who are overstaying their temporary visas.


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