Illegal Immigration: Definition & Facts

Instructor: Charlotte Bunch

Charlotte has been teaching secondary education for five years. She has a bachelor's degree in Secondary Education and a master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction.

The United States has a long history of immigration and people from outside the U.S. coming in illegally. In this lesson, explore how illegal immigration is defined and what current trends surround illegal immigration into the United States.

A Brief History of Immigration Policies in the United States

All Americans, aside from Native Americans, are decedents from immigrants or are themselves immigrants. The United States also has a long history of creating laws to control immigration.

Open immigration was initially encouraged because of the need to settle new territories. However, this changed throughout the 1800's with policies that banned or strictly limited Chinese and European immigrants. In the early 1900's there was a quota system that the U.S. government used to determine the amount of each ethnic group that was allowed to immigrate while also promoting workers for needed jobs.

With exceedingly high unemployment rates, the Great Depression caused immigration rates to drop and concerns about foreign workers affecting employment rates to rise. Restrictions based on ethnicity were repealed but those with Communist ties were prevented from entering the United States. Eventually, quota systems were abandoned and immigration was based on the needs of each person applying to immigrate. During this time, immigration was restricted from Mexico, Central America, and South America, resulting in an increase of illegal immigration.

In more recent times there has been an increase in concern about border security. This has resulted in intense political discussion of deportation, building barriers on borders, and stricter immigration policies.

Illegal Immigration Defined

The United States Department of Homeland Security defines illegal immigration as any foreign-born non-citizen individuals who are not legal residents. There are many terms that may be used for an individual that falls under this definition. An illegal immigrant may also be called an illegal alien, illegal immigrant, or undocumented immigrant.

There are a few ways that people may immigrate illegally. An individual may not have gone through the traditional inspections at a country's borders or through transportation security checkpoints. Instead, an individual may be crossing a border secretively. Other undocumented immigrants may have initially been temporarily legally admitted to a country but did not leave when they were supposed to. For example, Jay is a foreign exchange student from Australia. He decided to stay past the expiration date of his visa and travel throughout the United States for six months after.

Approximate Numbers of Undocumented Immigrants

There have recently been small changes in the number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States. As of 2015 there are an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States (approximately 3.4% of total population). This is a small decline from 2009, when Pew Research estimated there were approximately 11.3 million illegal immigrants. It is believed that people who overstay their visas represent 40-50 percent of unauthorized immigrants.

Country of Origin for Undocumented Immigrants

Recently, the amount of unauthorized Mexican immigrants has declined. In 2009, there were approximately 6.4 million unauthorized Mexican immigrants, compared to 2015 where there were approximately 5.6 million Mexican unauthorized immigrants. In 2016, early estimates said they made up half of total unauthorized immigrants, which is the first time in a decade they were not a clear majority of the unauthorized immigrants. Non-Mexican unauthorized immigrants (mostly from Asia and Central America) has increased since 2009 and account for 5.7 million of the total population.

Undocumented Immigrants in the Workforce

In the U.S. workforce, it is estimated there are 8 million unauthorized immigrants (approximately 5% who were working or unemployed and looking for work). From 2009 to 2014 the numbers were mostly unchanged, except for in 2007 when they were slightly down to an estimated 8.2 million. Most unauthorized immigrants work in farming (approx. 26%) and construction (approx. 15%) occupations.

Duration of Time Living in the U.S

There are many unauthorized immigrants who have lived in the US for about a decade. In 2005, approximately 41% of adult undocumented immigrants had lived in the U.S. for about a decade. This is compared to 2014 with approximately 66% of adult undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. for the same period of time. Fewer unauthorized immigrants have lived in the U.S. for less than five years (approx. 14% in 2014 versus approx. 31% in 2005). As of 2014 the average time for adults living in the U.S. was an estimated 13.6 years.

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