Immigration number games

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Following up on my op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, I talked with Lou Dobbs last night (see transcript) about the issues of demographic change and immigration in the United States. In my appearance and in earlier shows, Lou lays out various numbers regarding legal immigration – saying that 2 million people come into the country each year. But looking at the reports from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), this 2 million figure is total visas – many of which are for the same person year after year. These are not all new additions to the annual workforce or population. But even if they were, these 880,000 for 2005 (see Table 3 of the DHS report on Temporary Admissions of Nonimmigrants), this is only 0.5% of our current workforce of nearly 150 million people.

The DHS also releases numbers on U.S. legal permanent residents. In 2006 they totaled roughly 1.2 million people (see Table 1). But here too, the vast majority are not new to the United States – new arrivals each year from 2004-2006 averaged roughly 400,000. Thinking again about the workforce, this is about 0.3% of the total.

Finally, Lou focuses on illegal immigration to the United States, saying that 1.5 million to 2 million illegal immigrants come in every year. In depth studies – using U.S. census data as well as other sources – instead estimate these flows as 500,000 a year (see this Pew Hispanic Center study). The DHS estimates a lower 400,000 unauthorized migrants each year (see DHS study).

Migration to the United States is an important subject, and one that should be discussed broadly. But in these discussions, we need to make a serious effort to be as accurate as possible about the numbers we use when defining the issue.