There are (as of January 2011) an estimated 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., 59% (6.8 million) of whom were from Mexico. Other major source countries were El Salvador (660,000), Guatemala (520,000), Honduras (380,000), and China (280,000). In 2011, 85 percent of the unauthorized immigrant population originated from only ten different countries.
The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. increased from 2-4 million in 1980 to about 8.5 million in 2000 and reached its peak in 2007 with an estimated 11.8 million. According to DHS estimations it is "unlikely that the unauthorized immigrant population increased after 2007 given relatively high U.S. unemployment, improved economic conditions in Mexico, record low numbers of apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants at U.S. borders, and greater levels of border enforcement."
How to estimate the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.
Estimated foreign born population on January 1, 2011: 33,600,000
Estimated legally resident population, January 1, 2011: 22,090,000
Estimated resident unauthorized population, January 1, 2011: 11,510,000
Source: Hoefer/Rytina/Baker (2012)
The issue of irregular migration is fiercely debated in the context of security concerns. It is the undocumented nature of these migrants' presence that is seen as problematic, particularly since September 2001.
It is presumed that the great majority of illegal immigrants have entered legally and overstayed their visas or arrived illegally via the southern land border between the U.S. and Mexico.
During the last fifty years there have been various, largely futile, attempts to prevent irregular migration. In 1954, Operation Wetback
Much attention has been devoted to the shortcomings of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which was almost exclusively dedicated to the issue of unauthorized immigration. Approximately 3 million undocumented immigrants were legalized under the IRCA provisions. However, as it failed to create legal channels for migrants to help meet the high demand for labor in the U.S., it ultimately failed to stop the inflow of new irregular immigrants. Many legalized immigrants – who mostly came from Mexico and Central America – were subsequently joined by their families and relatives, touching off a wave of permanent immigration. This, in turn, resulted in a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, with particular concern being expressed about the issue of access to education, healthcare and welfare benefits.
Border crossings by illegal immigrants have evoked strong emotions among the general public and have led a number of private individuals to set up groups to monitor these crossings. Some of these groups have been accused of acting more like vigilantes than independent monitors. It is clear that voluntary border control militias cannot be tolerated, and that border control activities must be left to official border agents. However, any policy to increase border control cannot stand alone and must form part of a comprehensive reform of immigration policy (see discussion below).