Foreign born population may be higher than thought

The Associated Press
Sunday March 25, 2001


WASHINGTON — America’s foreign-born population increased to as much as 30 million during the 1990s, the Census Bureau said in an estimate higher than previously forecast. 

The number of new immigrants who arrived in the country the past decade also may be higher than expected, according to senior bureau officials who are in the early stages of trying to determine how big a role immigration played in the 2000 census. 

The latest immigration estimate of 11 million to 12 million surpassed an earlier forecast by at least 2.5 million. Also, the revised bureau figure of at least 30 million foreign-born residents – 11 percent of the country’s 281 million people – was 1.7 million higher than previously estimated. 

Both the Census Bureau and the Immigration and Naturalization Service warned Thursday that the new estimates were preliminary and could change once more extensive data is released later this year. 

“From every indication we’ve had, we’ve done a better job of counting,” said Robert Warren, INS research coordinator. But he said that until more numbers come in, all the estimates are “highly speculative.” 

Still, the news reignited old debates over how strictly to curb immigration. Critics said tighter measures were necessary to help ease the burden on school systems struggling to meet the demands of a more diverse student population, and reduce the number of illegal workers in the unskilled labor market. 

Pro-immigration groups urged lawmakers to provide local communities and school districts with additional money for bilingual education and social services. 

“It’s in all of our interests to provide them with the tools to be full participants and full contributors to our society,” said Josh Bernstein, senior policy analyst with the National Immigration Law Center. 

Figuring out immigration is key in the bureau’s study of why the latest national head count of 281 million came in 2 million higher than a previous population estimate but 3 million below the total found in a separate survey following the census. 

Much of that discrepancy could be due to a higher-than-expected count of Hispanics, said J. Gregory Robinson, chief of the bureau’s population analysis staff. The 2000 census count of 35.3 million Hispanics nationwide was about 2.5 million higher than estimated. 

Explosive Hispanic growth was evident over the decade in traditional immigrant destinations like New York and Texas, as well as less traditional states like Iowa and Arkansas. 

Some of the increase may have been due to a massive bureau outreach campaign to immigrants to boost the level of response to census questionnaires. The census form did not ask for the respondent’s legal status. 

Therefore, it was still unclear exactly how many of the new immigrants over the 1990s were undocumented, Robinson said. “We understated immigration, but how much more it may be ... we are doing research on that.” 

A separate estimate from Steve Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, based on 2000 census and INS data placed the number of illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States over the past decade at roughly 5 million, for a total of 7 million illegal aliens living in this country. 

That is higher than older estimates that have placed the number of undocumented immigrants living in the country last year at about 6 million. 

Camarota, whose group favors stricter immigration controls, said the figures once again prove the federal government must strengthen immigration enforcement at border crossings and in the interior of the country, and crack down on businesses that hire undocumented immigrants. 

The percentage of Americans who are foreign-born has steadily increased since 1970, when 4.7 percent of the population was born outside the country.