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PLoS One. 2018 Sep 21;13(9):e0201193. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0201193. eCollection 2018.

The number of undocumented immigrants in the United States: Estimates based on demographic modeling with data from 1990 to 2016.

Author information

1
Yale School of Management, Yale University, New Haven, CT, United States of America.
2
Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, United States of America.
3
Yale School of Public Health, Yale University, New Haven, CT, United States of America.
4
Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science, Yale University, New Haven, CT, United States of America.

Abstract

We apply standard demographic principles of inflows and outflows to estimate the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States, using the best available data, including some that have only recently become available. Our analysis covers the years 1990 to 2016. We develop an estimate of the number of undocumented immigrants based on parameter values that tend to underestimate undocumented immigrant inflows and overstate outflows; we also show the probability distribution for the number of undocumented immigrants based on simulating our model over parameter value ranges. Our conservative estimate is 16.7 million for 2016, nearly fifty percent higher than the most prominent current estimate of 11.3 million, which is based on survey data and thus different sources and methods. The mean estimate based on our simulation analysis is 22.1 million, essentially double the current widely accepted estimate. Our model predicts a similar trajectory of growth in the number of undocumented immigrants over the years of our analysis, but at a higher level. While our analysis delivers different results, we note that it is based on many assumptions. The most critical of these concern border apprehension rates and voluntary emigration rates of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. These rates are uncertain, especially in the 1990's and early 2000's, which is when-both based on our modeling and the very different survey data approach-the number of undocumented immigrants increases most significantly. Our results, while based on a number of assumptions and uncertainties, could help frame debates about policies whose consequences depend on the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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