Immigration Reform 2013: Where Are the Most Undocumented Immigrants From?

When you ask the average American what they think the face of illegal immigration, they may respond by saying, "a single young man who’s working in day labor," most likely from Mexico. The slumped economy and racial tensions have accumulated to form an even stronger hatred toward illegal immigrants. As a result, such stereotypes as the one described above are continuing to be reinforced. The reality is that the people who pass through our borders without documentation are much more diverse than you may think. Krissy Clark’s article "Who Are the 11 Million Undocumented Immigrants?" elaborates on the variety of illegal immigrants who are present within America.

While there are definitely young, single men who are day laborers, research shows that almost 40% of illegal immigrants are women, and a greater majority are married couples with children.

You’re right on one thing; the number one demographic that constitutes illegal immigration is Latin-Americans, particularly those from Mexico. According to Steve Camarato of the Center for Immigration Studies, around 55-60% of illegal immigrants are from Mexico. He also explained why so many illegal Mexican immigrants are low-skilled workers with little education; it is in part because "the immigration system is easier for more educated people to navigate." Perhaps this little factoid can inform our politicians on Capitol Hill as they battle and compromise over immigration reform going forward.

But this is only half the story. Contrary to (exaggerated) popular belief, not all illegal immigrants are "poor Mexicans who jumped the border." There is another host of countries where greater proportions of illegal immigrants come from. The second and third highest origin countries of illegal immigrants in 2008 were El Salvador and Guatemala. Both are located in Central America, relatively close to Mexico. Perhaps the mass illegal immigration has something to do with the terrifying ethnic cleansing procedures that were taking place in Guatemala in the 1980s and 1990s. Surprisingly, a few countries among the next batch are quite a distance from the United States (2008 data): the Philippines with 300,000 immigrants, Honduras with the same number, followed by Korea, China, Brazil, Ecuador, and India. 

While of course, the journey of those who travel from Asian nations illegally is longer, it gives some insight into the different strategies non-Mexican illegal immigrants use. For example, in the case of Indian illegal immigrants, they enter the country at airports and ports with student visas and end up overstaying their visa time limit. Due to law enforcement crackdowns, this is becoming increasingly difficult. Instead, Indian illegal immigrants are smuggled to a variety of countries in Central America and Mexico to reach their final destination in the United States.

Interestingly enough, not all illegal immigrants fill low-paying, low-skilled work in the American workforce. While a great number of them work in construction, meatpacking factories, or as nannies, there is also a whopping 10% working in professional, white-collar industries, including computer engineering.

What do these facts teach us? Illegal immigration is a global issue that cannot be solved simply by tightening border security and building a larger fence along the American-Mexican border. While those may work for the time being, we need to consider viable alternatives to combat what is a problem that is inflicting the United States from around the world.

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Anjana Sreedhar

Anjana is a passionate NYU student studying International Relations and Gender and Sexuality. She is also a PolicyMic writing intern who enjoys following the news and hopes to work in international development, particularly improving reproductive health of women and girls. When not studying, working, or researching, you'll find her editing for the NYU Journal of Politics and International Affairs, writing for NYU Generasian and Washington Square News, or watching Downton Abbey with a cup of masala chai.

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