Number of Illegal Aliens in U.S. May Be as Low as 2 Million, New Study Contends

Times Staff Writer

Between 2 million and 4 million illegal aliens now live in the United States--far fewer than previously estimated--and there is no solid evidence that the number has increased substantially in recent years, according to an extensive study released Monday by a National Research Council panel.

In a strongly worded report, the council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, said that immigration policy “has been made in a data vacuum” and that statistical information needed to address even basic questions is “woefully inadequate.”

Better Statistics Urged

After a two-year study, the panel urged Congress, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Office of Management and Budget and other agencies to take “immediate and direct action” to improve the quality of immigration statistics and to recognize the importance of such data in setting national policy.


But, INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson told a Senate subcommittee Monday there is no doubt that the flow of illegal aliens is increasing.

“There is no status quo . . . . The situation is getting worse,” Nelson said in giving the Reagan Administration’s qualified endorsement to legislation by Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) that would impose civil sanctions on employers who hire illegal aliens. The legislation would also set up a commission to decide if and when amnesty should be granted to aliens who have been in this country since 1980.

The Simpson measure is a compromise version of controversial immigration reform legislation that was passed by both the House and Senate last year but died in a conference committee. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce joined the Administration in endorsing the new version at Monday’s hearing, but officers of the AFL-CIO said that the labor organization was troubled by uncertainty over when amnesty would be granted to aliens who have lived in this country for years.

The research council’s report adds a new element to the debate over the size of the illegal immigrant population. The panel said that it had reviewed many different studies and concluded that the number of illegal aliens living in the country as of 1980 was 2 million to 4 million.


“Further,” the report said, “the number has not been growing remarkably fast in recent years.”

Higher Estimates

Other studies have estimated that the number is as high as 12 million, and many authorities have said that they consider 6 million to be a valid working figure. For instance, a special federal commission estimated that, as of 1978, there were 3.5 million to 6 million persons illegally in the country and said the number was growing steadily. Last year, authorities apprehended more than 1.2 million persons trying to get in illegally and, according to INS estimates, at least that many others entered undetected.

“The public debate on illegal immigration is founded on much smoke and little fire,” Kenneth Hill, the panel’s associate study director, wrote in an appendix to the report. Some previous estimates of the size of the illegal population “could be aptly characterized as coming out of the blue,” he said, but “unfortunately, the press continues to quote” the conjectural estimates.


“Even the commonly quoted range of 3 to 6 million illegals may be too high,” Hill wrote. ". . . A population of 1.5 million to 3.5 million illegal aliens in 1980 appears reasonably consistent with most of the studies.”

He added: “There is no empirical basis at present for the widespread belief that the illegal alien population has increased sharply in the late 1970s and early 1980s; the only data available on recent trends, INS records of locations of deportable aliens, in fact suggest that the population has increased little, if at all, since 1977 . . . .”

Thus, Hill concluded: “The size and growth of the illegal alien population may not be problems of the magnitude sometimes suggested, although any substantial number of illegal residents may cause social and economic problems, particularly at the local level . . . .”

Study Challenged


Hill’s views were challenged by Roger Conner, executive director of the Federation of American Immigration Reform, who said in an interview that Hill’s estimates were based on questionable Census Bureau data and were “constructed from a set of assumptions picked out of thin air.” Conner said it was “an undeniable fact” that the number of aliens apprehended at the border “has increased 3,000% in the past 15 years.”

The panel’s study was requested by the INS in late 1982 as debate built in Congress on the impact of immigration on the U.S. population, including how many illegal aliens enter the country and whether immigrants take jobs away from U.S. citizens or cause an excessive burden on social welfare programs.