Legalize Who?: A Portrait of the 11 Million Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States

Immigration Policy Center
Date of Publication: 
January, 2013
Source Organization: 
American Immigration Council

In Congress' immigration debate, the central question is typically what to do about the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living and working in the United States (2012). The media often portrays this population as barely literate young men who pour over the southern border and live solitary lives rather than providing a nuanced understanding of who the 11 million really are: adults and children, mothers and fathers, homeowners and churchgoers who are invested in their communities.  

"Legalize Who?: A Portrait of the 11 Million Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States" is a fact sheet that attempts to provide a basic understanding of who the unauthorized are as people: where they live, where they're from, how long they have been here, and what family and community ties to the United States they have.  

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other sources provide this necessary social context to the immigration debate. The data reveal that most of the unauthorized have been here for more than a decade. While they are concentrated in California, Texas, Florida and New York, there are sizeable unauthorized populations in other states across the country. Three-fifths of unauthorized immigrants come from Mexico but significant numbers also come from Central America and the Philippines.

Nearly half of all adult unauthorized immigrants have children under the age of 18 and roughly 4.5 million native-born U.S.-citizen children have at least one unauthorized immigrant parent. More than half of unauthorized immigrant adults have a high-school diploma or more education. Nearly half of longtime unauthorized households are homeowners. And approximately two-fifths of unauthorized immigrant adults attend religious services every week. In other words, most unauthorized immigrants are already integrating into U.S. society not only through their jobs but also through their families and communities as well. 

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Immigration Policy Center (2013). "Legalize Who?: A Portrait of the 11 Million Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States." Washington, D.C.: Immigration Policy Center. Retrieved from