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Democrats push immigration overhaul, despite uncertainty about true number of illegal immigrants

"No one has any idea what the true number is, and that's partially by design," said the Heritage Foundation's Lora Ries.

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ICE officer in L.A.
ICE officer in L.A.
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Updated: March 4, 2021 - 11:15pm

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Last month, President Joe Biden lifted Donald Trump's freeze on green cards, an action the former president took to protect U.S. workers from competition from new immigrants for scarce jobs amid spiraling unemployment precipitated by economic shutdown during the pandemic.

Biden's move was part of a broader Democratic drive to overhaul the U.S. immigration system. The centerpiece of the effort is the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, a far-reaching bill that would ultimately offer a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants residing in the United States.

One precondition for reforming the immigration system is, of course, a reliable estimate of how many illegal immigrants there actually are in the country — a number about which there is considerable uncertainty and debate.

For the past decade, the widely accepted figure has hovered around 11 million. Groups that monitor the numbers — including PEW research, the Center for Immigration Studies and the Migration Policy Institute — place the figure in the 11-12 million range. For now, that is also the number the Biden administration is relying on. But over the past couple of years, policy experts, data scientists, and lawmakers alike have begun to question that number.

In 2018, a study conducted by researchers at Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the true number of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. is likely around 22 million, double the widely accepted figure. Using mathematical modeling based on a variety of demographic data and immigration operations information, the three researchers concluded that even when applying the most conservative parameters, the population of illegal immigrants in the country is at least 16.7 million. Their upper limit estimate was 29 million.

The Yale-MIT study "is not oriented towards politics or policy," said Jonathan Feinstein, one of the researchers on the project. Their paper, he said, "is about coming up with a better estimate of an important number."

While Ivy League data scientists may not be focused on the political implications of the numbers, the opposite is true for current members of the legislative branch — especially those with constituents in border towns and areas that are heavily impacted by the flow of migrants across the southern border.

Congressman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) sees a lot of the on-the-ground realities of illegal border crossings in his home state. He says the number of illegal immigrants being apprehended at the U.S. southern border is currently four times the figure Obama administration Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said meets the definition of a "crisis." Johnson's threshold number was 1,000. The current figure is estimated to be in the ballpark of 3,000-4,000.

Biggs told Just the News that he believes the true figure is "north of 25 million."

"No one has any idea what the true number is, and that's partially by design," said Lora Ries, a senior research fellow for homeland security at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who explained that government agencies like ICE don't collect exact data about border crossings and the number of undocumented people living in the U.S. 

Ries "seriously questions the 11 million figure" for two central reasons. First, she argued, the real number will always be higher than official tallies because most illegal immigrants seek to evade federal notice. And second, the number has remained flat for over a decade.

"How can it still be the exact same number for over a dozen years?" asked Ries. 

Although Democrats like to couch the illegal immigration issue "in terms of humanity," Biggs said, "the reality is that by providing those incentives for people to come across, it is inhumane what these people go through to get here because the cartels control all of the immigrant flow for the Central American states, all the way up to our border ... [the trafficked border crossers] are products like drugs are." 

 "I think that the Democrats are overplaying their hand," said Biggs.

Ries agreed that voters could rebel against Congress writing, in effect, a black check to an indefinite number of illegal immigrants.

"The concern with this legislation … is that Congress has no idea how many people would be eligible for this, and therefore they have no idea how much it would cost," she said. "The vagueness of the numbers allows lawmakers (mostly Democrats) to advocate, in perpetuity, for funding that depends on estimates of illegal aliens in their communities."

And for the Democrats, Biggs suspects, that is a feature not a bug. 

"I think they believe that they can convert these people to vote Democrat," he said. 

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